The present watercolour relates to one of Bonington's earliest lithographs (fig. 1). The watercolour varies slightly in the details of the shipping but the general composition is closely related to the print.
Bonington mastered the art of lithography with all the dexterity and poetry that he brought to his painting. Lithography was in its early days when it is thought that Eugène Delacroix introduced Bonington to the process. Unlike Delacroix who was frustrated with his efforts in the medium, Bonington produced about 100 lithographs, described by Delacroix as having a 'delicacy of touch' (C. Peacock, Richard Parkes Bonington, London, 1979, p. 99). Dunkerque is catalogued as number 1 in A. Curtis's L'Oeuvre gravé et lithographiée de R.P. Bonington, Paris, 1939, no. 1 (for an illustration see Peacock, op. cit., p. 99).
The harbour town of Dunkerque played an important role in Bonington's career. His first introduction to France was through the French artist François Louis T. Francia (1773-1839) who sent him to stay with a friend in Dunkerque, M. Benjamin Morel (1781-1860), the mayor of the town and a notable patron of the arts. In 1818 Morel sent Bonington to Paris to meet Delacroix, at the time an unknown painter; but Dunkerque became the place to which Bonington longed to escape to when tired of the grime of Paris and in 1824 he spent most of the year there. The town provided an excellent base for a marine and landscape painter. Communication with Lille, Calais, Boulogne, Ostend and Bruges was good and it was particularly popular with artists. There was good socializing, patronage and the opportunity for serious plein-air study.
1822 was a successful year for Bonington. Having left the studio of Baron Gros in Paris, he experimented more with the medium of oil, but he continued to produce watercolours and was rewarded for his skill when two examples Vue prise ©a Lillebonne and Vue prise su Havre were exhibited at the Paris Salon.
We are grateful to Patrick Noon for suggesting a date of circa 1822-3 for the present watercolour and for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.