This exceptional coastal landscape, painted when Bonington was at the height of his powers, constitutes the artist’s grandest statement in oil to appear at auction in a generation, and is one of the last on this scale to remain in private hands. Displaying his virtuoso manipulation of the brush and the subtle observation of light and atmosphere that he had mastered as a watercolourist, the picture belongs to a group of coastal scenes that were celebrated during Bonington’s lifetime and have captivated artists and collectors ever since. These works are considered to be among the most beautiful of the romantic period and led Edith Wharton, the American novelist, to write of Bonington in 1910 that ‘Surely he was the Keats of painting.’ (R.W.B. Lewis and N. Lewis, The Letters of Edith Wharton, London, 1988, p. 203).
With the sun appearing through a subtly painted haze, Bonington captures the atmosphere and light of this evening scene with dazzling brio. The picture reveals the undeniable influence of Turner, whose landscapes Bonington would have seen on his trip from Paris to London in 1825. The composition, which is characteristic of the period, is dominated by the great expanse of sky, punctuated with only a few vertical accents in the form of the conversing fisherfolk and beached boats. Beneath the low horizon line, Bonington describes the reflections in the wet sand and tracks left by the horse-drawn wagon with rich textured brushwork. A pentiment in the female figure in the foreground and the evidence of profuse under-drawing on the right side of the composition, visible through the translucent glazes and confirmed in the infrared reflectogram (fig. 1), illustrate the artist’s highly instinctive approach to landscape painting. Eugène Delacroix, who shared a studio with Bonington in Paris in 1826, later wrote to the critic Théophile Thoré, ‘I could never cease to admire his marvellous grasp of effects and the facility of his execution […], not that he was easily satisfied. On the contrary, he frequently repainted entire passages which seemed wonderful to us; but his ability was such that his brush instantly recovered new effects as charming as the first.’ Delacroix went on to praise the artist’s lightness of touch which ‘makes his pictures, as it were, like diamonds that ravish the eye, quite independently of their subject or of any representational qualities.’ (translation of letter to Théophile Thoré, 30 November 1861, Correspondence générale d’Eugène Delacroix, IV, ed. André Joubin, Paris, 1935-38, p. 286).
Dated by Patrick Noon to circa 1826 (op. cit.), two years before Bonington’s untimely death, this landscape was painted shortly before his departure for Venice. Remarkably, it is thought that Bonington 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 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. During the following two years, arguably the most prolific period in his career, Bonington produced his largest and most ambitious coastal scenes, among which can be counted the pictures at Yale (1824; Noon, no. 171), Tate Britain (circa 1824; Noon, no. 172), Anglesey Abbey, National Trust (circa 1824-25; Noon, no. 177), Ferens Art Gallery, Hull (circa 1825-26; Noon, no. 185), and that in the collection of the Duke of Bedford (circa 1827; Noon, no. 206).
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 Louis 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 École 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 Eugène Isabey on a sketching tour along the Channel in the autumn of 1825. In April of the following year Bonington left Paris 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, demanding 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 the 23 September 1828, a month short of his twenty-sixth birthday, Bonington died of tuberculosis.
1826, the year in which the present picture is thought to have been executed, was a key date in Bonington’s career in that it marked 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). The two landscapes exhibited at the British Institution that year were acquired by Countess de Grey (French Coast Scenery; London, Tate, Noon, no. 172) and Sir George Warrender, 4th Bt., (French Coast with Fishermen; Private collection, Noon, no. 184) and it is clear that Bonington’s works were soon much in demand from many of the great Whig patrons of the day, including John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, and Robert, 2nd Earl Grosvenor. Bedford, who probably visited Bonington’s studio in Paris at the suggestion of the painter Augustus Wall Calcott before the artist’s departure for Italy, acquired On the Cote d’Opale, Picardy (Woburn Abbey, Duke of Bedford collection) and the beautiful On the Coast of Picardy, which was bought at his widow’s sale in 1853 by the 4th Marquess of Hertford and is now in the Wallace Collection, London (fig. 2).
Henry Wellesley, 1st Lord Cowley (1773-1847), the youngest brother of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, may well have acquired the present picture during his time in Paris, where he served as Ambassador from 1835 to 1846. The Hon. Lady Ward (d. 1962), who later owned the picture, was the daughter of Whitelaw Reid, American Ambassador in London. She and her husband, the Hon. Sir John Ward (1870-1938), lived for many years at Dudley House, Park Lane.