At once melancholic and dramatic, this small panel by Jacob van Ruisdael has been described by Michael Clarke as one of the ‘greater moments’ of the original picture collection assembled by Richard Payne Knight, the legendary connoisseur, antiquarian and one of the foremost English aesthetes of his generation (M. Clarke and N. Penny, The Arrogant Connoisseur: Richard Payne Knight, 1751-1824, exhibition catalogue, Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, 1982, p. 109).
Having travelled widely in Italy during his youth, when he befriended the celebrated archaeologist and diplomat William Hamilton, Knight became, upon his return to England, a keen Classics scholar and a leading authority on ancient art, although his reputation was tarnished towards the end of his life by his vocal rebuke of the Elgin marbles. He served as a prominent member of the Society of Dilettanti and was a keen collector. Knight bequeathed to the British Museum a magnificent collection of antique coins, medals and bronzes, and a vast ensemble of 1,144 Old Master drawings, which transformed the museum’s holdings. Less well-known was the heterogeneous group of paintings he amassed at his estate of Downton, Shropshire, which included works of remarkable quality and variety, notably Rembrandt’s Saint Bartholomew (Los Angeles, Getty Museum), Mantegna’s Adoration of the Shepherds and Claude’s La Crescenza (both New York, The Metropolitan Museum).
The place of this elegant and sober panel, dated by Slive to circa 1647-49 (loc. cit.), within Knight’s collection might best be appreciated in the context of his role as a leading exponent of the Picturesque movement in country house architecture and landscaping. Following picturesque principles, at Downton, Knight oversaw the construction in 1773-4 of a castle with an asymmetrical plan. His design of surrounding gardens was inspired by the work of Claude, Gaspard Dughet and the great Dutch masters Hobbema and Ruisdael.
The small landscape hung in the Saloon at Downton Castle, Herefordshire (fig. 1), beneath the grand portrait of Knight by Thomas Lawrence, where the sitter is presented in full scholarly regalia: a volume of engravings upon his knees and a bronze urn at his side (fig. 2; Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery).