Rhagor - Opening our national collections

An 18th century painter at work - The techniques of Richard Wilson

Amgueddfa Cymru owns the largest collection of paintings by Richard Wilson outside London, holding over 20 paintings in its stores and on display to the public.

The Artist

[image: Richard Wilson (1714-1782)]

Richard Wilson (1714-1782)

Richard Wilson was born and brought up in Penegoes, Montgomeryshire and moved to London in 1729 to train as a portrait painter under Thomas Wright. Following his apprenticeship in 1735 he began producing portraits of Welsh and English sitters. In 1750 he left London for Rome where he remained until 1757. During this time he developed new skills as a landscape painter in the grand classical style following the examples of Poussin, Claude and Zuccarelli.

On his return to London he hired several apprentices and paying pupils included Thomas Jones and Joseph Farington who both ended up adopting something of Wilson's studio practice.

Over the next fifteen years he produced large numbers of Italian, English and Welsh landscapes repeating the more popular subjects many times over. Gradually the market for this type of painting disappeared and his income dwindled. The Royal Academy, of which he had been a founder member in 1768, eventually appointed him as Librarian with a salary of £50 per annum. Eventually his health deteriorated and he retired to Colomendy near Mold where he died in 1782.

Portrait Painting Technique

[image: Portrait of a Lady: Maid of Honour. Richard Wilson (1714 - 1782)]

Portrait of a Lady: Maid of Honour. Richard Wilson (1714 - 1782)

Wilson's initial portraits date from 1740-50 and reflect the taste of his day. Subjects are usually shown bust-length in an oval with a suitable background echoing the aspirations of the sitter. Wilson's loose but masterly handling of paint is visible in the costumes of his subjects, showing details of fastenings and other decorative features. Wilson painted skin tones in three stages. The first colouring established the basics of the face using a shade tint for the darker tones and a light tint for the general flesh tone. The second painting, after the first was dry, consisted in heightening of the lights, glazing the darks and adding carmine to the lips and cheeks. The final or third painting allowed final corrections to the glazing.

A particular hallmark of his portraiture is the grey underpainting left exposed to form a mid-tone of the skin. This is easily visible in the portraits of Richard Owen (NMW A 5005) and the Maid of Honour (NMW A 67).

Landscape Painting Technique

Wilson decided to abandon portraiture in favour of landscape painting whilst in Italy. His landscape paintings were produced by first applying an underdrawing of brown paint, followed by ‘dead-colouring', a task which was given to the studio apprentices. Thin washes of colour were applied at this stage; Prussian blue and grey-brown for the sky, and a mixture of red and blue pigments for the landscape. The colour was applied to a thickness depending on the depth of tone required, allowing the light tone of the ground to show through more towards the horizon. Once the dead-colouring was dry it was oiled out before the second painting.

For the foreground Joseph Farington records that Wilson 'went over it a second time, heightening every part with colour and deepening the shadows, but still, brown, loose and flat, and left in a state for finishing: the half-tints laid in, without highlights.' In the third and final painting of the foreground Wilson altered the tints, adding the necessary sharpness to the different objects, before glazing them with rich warm tints, and finally adding further solid tints over this.

The sky and distant landscape, on the other hand, were worked wet-in wet after the initial dead-colouring, rather than in two separate stages. This allowed Wilson to achieve easier blending of the clouds with the blue of the sky, apparently using ultramarine rather than Prussian blue for this stage of painting. Last of all the horizon was adjusted and the distance softened with grey-brown again as necessary.

Drawing Practice

Drawing was important to Wilson with the first year of his pupils' training being devoted purely to drawing, which he believed gave them a good grounding 'in the principles of light and shade without being dazzled and misled by the flutter of colours.'

The majority of his surviving drawings date from his visit to Italy (1750-7). These are made up of studies taken directly from nature and designs drawn from his imagination. His preferred medium was black chalk and stump on a grey paper. He used these drawings as an inspiration for his oil paintings but rarely translated them directly into paint. He was constantly reworking the original designs and making adjustments as he painted.

In addition his colours were all derived from his visual memory or his imagination as he disapproved of tinted drawings and never used watercolours to make studies from nature.

[image: Wilson's palette according to Paul Sandby from Whitley's Artists and their Friends in England 1700-1799. (Medici Society pub. 1928)]

Wilson's palette according to Paul Sandby from Whitley's Artists and their Friends in England 1700-1799. (Medici Society pub. 1928)

Wilson's Palette:

Both Joseph Farington, who became his pupil in 1763, and the watercolourist Paul Sandby, one of his friends, recorded Wilson's palette. Their accounts differ slightly but together give the range of pigments we would expect to find in his paintings.

Blues: ultramarine, Prussian blue, indigo
Reds: vermilion, light red, red lake
Yellows: yellow ochre, yellow lake, Naples yellow, brown pink
Browns: Roman ochre, burnt siena
Greens: terre verte
White: lead white
Black: ivory or bone black

At a glance:

  • 1714: Born in Montgomeryshire
  • 1728: Moved to London to take up apprenticeship with Thomas Wright
  • 1735: Became Painter in his own right
  • 1750: Travelled to Rome to developing his painting in the style of Poussin, Claude and Zuccarelli
  • 1757: Returned to London training pupils such as Thomas Jones and Joseph Farington
  • 1768: Founder member of The Royal Academy
  • 1772: Appointed Librarian of The Royal Academy
  • 1782: Died in Mold, Wales

Article Date: 16 April 2007


Amgueddfa Cymru on 1 April 2014, 21:21

Dear Suzanne von Pflugl
Wilson was primarily a portrait painter until he went to Italy in 1750, and it is not impossible that he may have made a few portrait miniatures in the early part of his career but none are known.

Suzanne von Pflugl on 1 April 2014, 12:21

Did Richard Wilson ever paint miniatures?

Sara Huws on 6 March 2014, 10:49 (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Staff)

Dear Mr Fiddimore

We do not formally authenticate paintings but if we are sent an image of the work we do our best to offer advice on where to go next. Not all of Richard Wilson's paintings are signed, however if you would like to send us a photo of the work, a curator from our Historic Art dept will be able to comment on it in a bit more detail. You can do so at the link: Email the Historic Art Department

Royston Fiddimore on 23 February 2014, 16:49

Can you tell me whether Richard Wilson is known to have painted landscape of Tintern Abbey as I have a largish picture about 2 feet by 4 feet signed feintly by R Wilson which I acquired in 1960's and kept in different houses.Its now too big and unsuitable for our current house but would not like to dispose of before checking its authenticity. Many thanks

Tapan Kumar Mukherjee, Subhas Pallee, Burdwan, West Bengal, India on 7 January 2013, 05:03

The recent Royal Academy of Art exhibition on 18th century English Landscape painting in London displays the works of Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable and Joseph MW Turner. But surprisingly the work of Richard Wilson (1714 - 1782) remains unrepresented in the exhibition, though he is justly regarded as the father of English landscape painting, and along with william Hogarth with his mastery of figurative art mainly bore the brunt of the struggle against the standards of conventional art.

Anne Pritchard on 4 January 2012, 09:42

Dear Shelagh Noden,

Thank you for your comment on the techniques of Richard Wilson. Please could you send us digital photographs of your paintings and a note of their size (not including the frame)? We cannot authenticate works by photograph but they should help us to tell you a bit more about them. Any other information, such as how your mother might have come to have them, would also be of interest. Please direct information to Anne Pritchard using the following address: art@museumwales.ac.uk

Anne Pritchard
Assistant Curator of Historic Art

Shelagh Noden on 19 December 2011, 16:19

We have found a painting at my mother's house in Lancashire, signed R Wilson RA. It looks very like other examples of his work that we have seen; a dramatic landscape that we at first thought to be a Lake District scene. There is another similar but unsigned painting.
What should we do?


Shelagh Noden

Amgueddfa Cymru on 23 November 2010, 11:52

Dear Judith - thank you for your suggestions, a link to a list of works we hold by Richard Wilson has now been included in the article above, and we also hope to append a list of Wilson drawings and engravings after paintings in the near future.

judith.hodgkinson@o2.co.uk on 22 November 2010, 16:00

A list of your holdings of Wilson paintings, drawings, engravings after his paintings &c would be useful, attached to this article. I am supposing that the writer knows this, so it would be comparatively easy for them to do.

Glenn Morris on 19 October 2010, 09:56

It's great to have this useful information on-line permanently. Please don't remove it.

Carol Hawk on 9 April 2009, 15:08

I purchased a canvas copy of one of Richard Wilsons paintings. The number of the painting is 787 out of 2000. I am not sure of the name of the painting because the certificate of quarantee is printd in Italian. It could possibly be Firenze, Le Cascine. The printing above this name says La tiratura di questo soggetto, di cm. 100 x 62 circa. The painting is a Italian country side with a man and woman standing next to a river with a sail boat on the river. I was wondering if someone in your compandy could give me any inforation on this painting and the value of this copy.
Carol Hawk

Gareth Morse on 9 April 2009, 15:06

Critical comments on his ' Italian landscapes' - by his contemporaries and by modern scholars and critics would be valuable here.
Is there a major publication - produced perhaps by the University of Wales [ there ought to be ! ] to which I can refer.
Gareth Morse Welsh UK and for many years Australian landscape painter
Refer Diane McCusker Gallows Gallery, Mosman Park Perth Western Australia 6012

Gareth Morse /garethmorse @netspace.net.au on 3 November 2008, 12:14

It would have been useful to have had some commentary on the quality of his drawing - drawing after all informed the basis of his work allied to his fluency with paint. Also perhaps there is too much concern with the matter of ' influences' since at the point of painting, creating the Forms of the landscape with a freedom of painterly usage is one which he readily anticipated.
Ultimately , of course, his vision belonged, singularly to him. Diolch.

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A red or purplish-red colour; crimson.

The process of applying a transparent layer of oil paint over a solid one so that the colour of the first is profoundly modified.

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