This dazzling, small-scale painting - one of the last of Bonington’s celebrated French coastal landscapes to remain in private hands – was painted when the artist was at the height of his powers and only a few years before his early death in 1828 aged twenty-five. Remarkably, it is thought that he had not started to paint in oil until late in 1823 and yet, in August of the following year, he exhibited four landscapes in that medium at the Paris Salon. The works from the British School shown in 1824, which included Constable’s Haywain (London, National Gallery), caused a sensation whilst also receiving sharp criticism from the artistically conservative quarters of the French press, who were outraged by the loose and broadly painted landscapes. Bonington rapidly attained a cult status amongst French artists and connoisseurs who found in his work a freedom and naturalism that was in striking contrast to the academic classicism of the national school. In 1826, he made his debut, to great acclaim, at the British Institution in London with the exhibition of two coastal views. The anonymous reviewer in the Literary Gazette wrote, ‘Who is R.P. Bonnington [sic.]? We never saw his name in any catalogue before and yet here are pictures which would grace the foremost name in landscape art’ (The London Literary Gazette, Saturday, February 4, 1826, no. 472, p. 76).
In this picture, Bonington achieves one of his most compelling and dramatic compositions with consummate elan: horizontal bands of colour and exposed canvas ground describe the patterns of shifting light on the beach, still wet from the retreating tide, while with broad textured brushstrokes the artist captures the sweeping sky over the group of children who dominate the foreground. The low horizon line is marked with several vertical accents, most strikingly with the red and yellow head-dresses of the two central children, but also in details such as the boats to the right of the peninsula, which are executed with the artist’s masterful wet-in-wet technique.
Although the picture has a distinguished provenance stretching back to the great collection of Hugh Munro of Novar in the 19th Century, when included in the 2008 monograph of Bonington’s work (op. cit.) it was described as a copy after his masterpiece On the Côte d’Opale, Picardy (fig. 1; Woburn Abbey, Duke of Bedford collection), painted in circa 1827 for John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford. However, after first-hand inspection, Patrick Noon has now fully accepted this unlined and beautifully preserved canvas as an autograph work which he dates to circa 1825/26, prior to the Woburn picture. Noon notes that the palette can be compared with two of the artist’s finest coastal landscapes from this period; the Beached vessels and a wagon near Trouville (c. 1825) at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, and the exquisite On the coast of Picardy (1826) in the Wallace Collection, London (fig. 2). He believes the finished nature of this landscape and the fact that Bonington has signed the canvas suggests it is an independent work, rather than a preparatory study for the Bedford picture. The presence of under-drawing in the two children facing the viewer, visible through the translucent glazes of their clothing and confirmed in the infrared reflectogram (fig. 3), which compares closely with the artist’s use of pencil in another landscape from this period, On the French coast (dated to c. 1826; Christie’s, 9 July 2015, lot 26, ?2,490,500; see fig. 4), would seemingly support the theory that this pre-dates the larger picture. Moreover, there are numerous differences in terms of the disposition of the objects in the foreground and certain details, notably the inclusion of the blue skirt of the standing child’s dress, which do not appear in the landscape at Woburn.
The Bedford picture has long been identified as that exhibited by Bonington at the Royal Academy in 1827 as Scene on the French Coast (no. 373). The artist William Wyld who, like Bonington, had also studied with the watercolourist Louis Francia, recalled seeing the picture at the Academy in the spring of that year when he later wrote: ‘It struck me as a great revelation of truth by the side of the Callcots, the Turners and other splendid conventionalities’ (P.G. Hamerton, ‘A Sketchbook by Bonington in the British Museum’, Portfolio, p.o.p, 1881, p. 69). Wyld added that ‘the picture had been painted for an English nobleman’ (ibid.), and while Bonington’s works were by then already in demand from many of the great Whig patrons of the day, including Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, and Robert, 2nd Earl Grosvenor, it seems certain that this was for the Duke of Bedford. A collector of considerable flair, Bedford had probably visited Bonington’s studio in Paris in 1826 at the suggestion of the painter Augustus Wall Calcott before the artist’s departure for Italy that year. Patrick Noon has suggested it was possibly during this visit that Bedford encountered the present work and subsequently commissioned the picture now at Woburn, while also acquiring the aforementioned On the coast of Picardy, which was later bought at his widow’s sale in 1853 by the 4th Marquess of Hertford and is now in the Wallace Collection.
Although the picture has been thought traditionally to depict the French coast near Dieppe, Patrick Noon (op. cit., 2008, p. 260) has noted that a more accurate identification is possibly that inscribed beneath J.D. Harding’s lithograph of 1830 of the Woburn picture, where it is described as ‘near Calais’. The coastline and native people of Northern France were a constant source of inspiration throughout Bonington’s short career. After his family moved from Nottingham to Calais in 1817, he met and trained with Francia, the French-born artist who had just returned from England after twenty-seven years and who, along with Thomas Girtin, Copley Fielding and Samuel Prout, had been the first exponents of naturalistic painting in watercolour. During his time at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he studied under Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, and in the following years spent in France, Bonington made frequent tours to Picardy and Normandy to make sketches of the sea and the inhabitants of the coastal towns. After spending much of 1824 in Dunkirk, which he described as ‘the happiest year of my life’, he accompanied Eugene Isabey on a sketching tour along the Channel in the autumn of 1825. In April of the following year, after a period in Paris during which he shared a studio with Eugene Delacroix, Bonington left France for Italy with his friend Charles Rivet, stopping at Milan and Verona before arriving in Venice. There he worked feverishly, producing sketches of the Gothic palaces along the Grand Canal and the Basilica of San Marco, which would later serve as studies for the larger oil paintings he executed on his return to Paris. The exhibition of these works at the Salon, as well as in London at the British Institution and the Royal Academy, resulted in an avalanche of commissions from French and English patrons, desiring views of the city. The strain of work rapidly took its toll on the young artist and, after an illness brought on by sunstroke or nervous exhaustion while sketching, his health quickly deteriorated. On 23 September 1828, a month short of his twenty-sixth birthday, Bonington died of tuberculosis.
Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro of Novar (1797-1864), a former owner of the picture, was a Scottish landowner, amateur artist and one of the most important patrons of Turner. He formed a celebrated collection of pictures that included Rembrandt’s Lucretia (Washington, National Gallery of Art), Veronese’s Vision of St. Helena (London, National Gallery) and Titian’s Rest on the Flight (Longleat). Munro owned no fewer than ten pictures by Bonington including A fishmarket near Boulogne (New Haven, Yale Center for British Art), the work described by Patrick Noon as the artist’s ‘most ambitious and arguably most influential marine painting’ (op. cit., 2008, p. 198, no. 171).
We are grateful to Patrick Noon for confirming the attribution after first-hand inspection of the work and for his assistance with this catalogue entry.