This radiant en plain air sketch of The Avon at Clifton is a new addition to the recorded oeuvre of Francis Danby, the leading member of the Bristol school of painters in the early-19th century. It shows one of the most celebrated prospects of the city, from the Cumberland Basin, a view now dominated by the Clifton Suspension Bridge (an astonishing feat of engineering originally designed by Brunel in 1831 and finally opened in 1864), spanning the gorge between Leigh Woods in North Somerset on the left and Clifton in Bristol on the right. Far from simply rendering the topography of the view, Danby has skillfully evoked the calm of a summer’s evening, as indicated by the long shadows cast by the trees on the left bank. The scene is bathed in a glowing, almost Mediterranean light, and the warmth emanating from the face of the gorge and the terracotta-coloured bricks of the buildings of Clifton is almost tangible. Danby displays great dexterity in his handling of the paint, describing the façades of the buildings in a few economic brushstrokes and worked wet-on-wet to create the hazy reflections on the still waters.
Danby executed a number of drawings and watercolours of the Avon from different viewpoints, including from Durham Down and Clifton Down, during his time in Bristol between 1813 and 1824. He captured this same view in a pencil, watercolour and bodycolour sketch, signed ‘F: Danby’, incorporating more of the bank in the immediate foreground, now in the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (see F. Greenacre, Francis Danby, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 1988, p. 135, no. 83, fig. 27). Danby adjusted the perspective slightly between the two sketches, adopting a position further left along the bank in the watercolour. It is not clear which came first, but slight differences in the development of the terraces on the hill appear to indicate that they were not executed at the same moment. Danby would later abandon such fidelity to nature in favour of more romantic and visionary impulses, influenced by the work John Martin and Turner.