Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Paul Sandby

Entertaining goodness: Paul Sandby

Paul Sandby in 1780

Paul Sandby in 1780

The other day (while looking for something entirely different, in the usual way of things) I found myself browsing the many images by Paul Sandby in the British Museum online collection. Eighteenth century painters are a bit off piste for this blog, but indulge me. I was reminded of the two sides to Sandby’s work: his tasteful, deftly observed but mildly mannered bread-and-butter landscapes, and then the feverish density and oddity of his earlier caricature-styled work, particularly his ferocious attacks on Hogarth for his Analysis of Beauty, published in 1753. The (modest) Warren print collection includes one of these, featuring Hogarth sat in his own filth. It’s called The Analyst Besh****n in his own Taste – a fine title; “beshitten” is such a good old English word …

The many incidental small figures that populate Sandby’s views, most notably those of the busy military encampments in London in 1780, are witness to his deep fascination with folk of all ranks and stations – the fashionable visitors, the workaday, the ragged, the incorrigible, the feral children. Interestingly, at a point in the early 1750’s, roughly concurrent with his savaging of Hogarth, Sandby’s “figure studies” collided with his more experimental, caricaturish line, resulting in some fine images, particularly a little set of etchings titled Good Entertainment: A New Book of Figures, apparently published in 1752, when Sandby would have been 21 years old. And here they are. (As usual, click the thumbnails for enlarged slides.)


These owe something to the vernacular caricature tradition, such as the works of “Tim Bobbin”, but they’re not quite like anything else from the period. Sandby’s observing eye is wonderfully keen as always, but there is a visionary, almost expressionist intensity here, though it embodies an optimism that recognises the deep, sacred goodness in the ordinary, a kind of transcendent humanism; take, for instance, the steady gaze of the little girl with a doll, a child study utterly honest and emptied of all sentimentality.

Sandby’s mastery of bold tonal hatching gives these images at times a hallucinatory immediacy beyond even that of a photograph. Though more than 250 years old, the images are somehow oddly modern; the cook, captain and mate could be straight out of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. In a way, these long gone, anonymous individuals who confront us in the here and now are in the same family tree as the haggard and hollowed post-cubist peasants and tinkers of the Two Roberts and their school.

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