Thought for many years to be a drawing by Gainsborough, this topographical view was an unusual choice for Wilson who generally followed the tradition of academic Italianate landscapes. As David Solkin points out, this composition is the earliest in which Wilson treated such an 'undignified site not much more than a piece of common nature, treated in the unpretentious manner of seventeenth-century Dutch art' (D. Solkin, Richard Wilson, the Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, London, Tate, 1982-3, pp. 103-5, 220). Such a subject would appeal to the urban professional middle-class market as embodied in two if not all three of the known purchasers of related oil paintings (see below).
Dated by Hayes to about 1765, the drawing shows the watermeadows near Whitton Place, an estate which was formerly a residence of Archibald, 3rd Duke of Argyll (1682-1761), but by 1765 was owned by the architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796), in a part of Hounslow Heath, south-west London, beside the River Crane.
Thomas Hastings, who etched the National Gallery version of the oil, stated that 'Paul Sandby was with Richard Wilson at the time the Sketch was made for the subject of Hounslow Heath' (Etchings from the Works of Richard Wilson, with some Memoirs of his Life, London, 1825, p. 9). Whether the 'Sketch' is the present drawing is unclear, but the artist Ozias Humphry (1742-1810) noted in a memorandum of 12 March 1773 that 'Mr Wilson says the best & most expedient Mode of drawing from Nature is w.th black chalk & a stump on brown paper touch'd up w.th white' (British Museum, Add MSS 22940, p. 111).
At least three oil paintings deriving from the present drawing are known, one having been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1770 (no. 203). The first of the oils seems to have been acquired in 1765 by the London journalist Thomas Green, while another was bought by the Bloomsbury bookseller Tom Davies, one of an expanding group of middle-class patrons of English landscape artists during this period. That in Tate Britain, from the Ford Collection, was probably acquired by Benjamin Booth, a director of the East India Company and Sir Michael Ford's father-in-law.
Influenced by Claude Lorrain and the Dutch landscape artists, Wilson was a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768. His landscapes are known to have inspired successive British artists such as Constable and Turner.
For a circular drawing by Wilson of A skirmish at the mouth of a harbour see lot 118.