Benjamin Barker of Bath

(Pontypool 1776–1838 Totnes)

A Wooded River Landscape with Drovers

56 x 68 7/8 in. (116.8 x 174.8 cm.)
oil on canvas
signed and dated ‘B. Barker pinxt / 1807’ (lower right, on the rock)

Provenance:

Sir John Gladstone, 1st Bt (1764–1851), Fasque House, Kincardineshire.
Thence by descent to his eldest son Sir Thomas Gladstone, 2nd Bt (1804–89), older brother of William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898), British Prime Minister.
Thence by family descent at Fasque House, Kincardineshire, until sold London, Christie’s, 7 May 2008, lot 149.
With John Mitchell Fine Paintings, London, 2008.
Anonymous sale, London, Christie’s South Kensington, 8 July 2011, lot 137, when acquired by the present owner.

Bibliography:

Possibly Fasque House Inventory, 1851: Large Drawing Room: ’14 Paintings – £75.0.0.’

Catalogue Entry

The son of Benjamin Barker the Elder (1720?-1793) and brother of painter Thomas Barker (1769-1847), Benjamin Barker of Bath was an accomplished British landscape painter, active primarily in the city of Bath during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Barker exhibited his first painting at the British Institution in 1806, where he continued presenting his work regularly until the end of his life. From 1800 to 1821, he exhibited his views and landscapes at the Royal Academy, and, between 1813 and 1820, at the Old Watercolour Society. When Barker reached the pick of his success, his works entered important private and national collections, including that of the South Kensington Museum – now Victoria and Albert Museum – hanging alongside masterpieces of the greatest painters of his generation, including Wilson, Gainsborough and Turner. Barker was a skilled watercolourist, with forty-eight of his watercolours being reproduced in aquatint in Theodore Fielding’s 1824 volume English Landscape Scenery. Barker was held in high esteem as a teacher of painting in oil and watercolours, deriving a considerable income from his pupils.1 Often compared to his brother Thomas, Barker was defined as “the better landscape painter” by American painter Benjamin West (1738–1820), who visited Bath in 1807.2

Fig. 1. George Morland, The Old Water Mill, oil on canvas, 100.3 x 124.8 cm, 1790, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven.

Fig. 2. Benjamin Barker of Bath, Figures by a Cottage, a Man on a Horse Crossing a Brook, signed and dated ‘B. Barker / 1807’ (lower left), oil on canvas, 83.6 x 105.8 cm, Private collection.

Throughout his career, Barker painted a vast number of rural scenes, of which the present work is an early example. The painting shows a wooded, hilly landscape with a lake in the distant background. An old watermill, partially covered and surrounded by plants and moss, dominates the composition. On the right, a stream of water descends from the lake into a small river. Its shores are inhabited by figures: a drover in a white shirt holding a stick faces the viewer, while another sits on the ground, seen from three-quarter. Three cows freshen up in the river, one of them drinking its water. In the background, on the left, a human figure, possibly a peasant, is sketched against two cottages in the shade. The scene is characterised by a strong chiaroscuro, with sunlight filtering through the cloudy sky. An invisible source of light coming from the upper left corner dramatically illuminates the watermill’s façade, the rocks and the figures in the foreground. There, written on a rock, is the artist’s signature: ‘B. Barker pinxt / 1807’.

Fig. 3. Cottages at Chippenham, Wilts, after Benjamin Barker, Aquatint printed in brown ink, ca. 1824. Print made by Thomas Fielding; published in Bath by E. Everitt. British Museum, London.

Fig. 5. Cottage Near Chippenham, aquatint after Benjamin Barker of Bath. Engraved by T. Fielding, published by W. Everitt, Bath, 1843.

Fig. 4. Cottage near Chippenham, no. 27, 1824, aquatint after Benjamin Barker of Bath. Engraved by T. Fielding, published by W. Everitt, Bath, 1843.

By the time Barker painted A Wooded River Landscape with Drovers, landscape had become the natural idiom for British artists and a firmly established genre. Since the 1770s, the Picturesque school of landscape painting had become increasingly popular. Since the 1790s, painters ventured into the Lake District, the highlands of Scotland and the remoter parts of Wales. To the summer of 1798 dates Benjamin Barker’s tour of North Wales, the first of a long series of expeditions often conducted in the company of his brother Thomas. The two brothers are documented to have spent much time in the countryside around Festiniog, Caernarvon and Llangollen.3 Benjamin and Thomas also found inspiration in the immediate vicinities of Bath, the setting of Hampton Rocks, above Bathampton, being a frequent subject of their sketches. Although the source of inspiration of the present scene remains unknown, it is likely to have been one of the rural landscapes Barker encountered during such excursions into nature. As was customary for the artist,4 he probably based the painting on a drawing or oil sketch made from nature, which he later reworked in his studio.

Fig. 6. Benjamin Barker of Bath, Landscape with Cattle, oil on canvas, 178 x 266 cm., 1810, Private collection.

Barker’s interest in rural landscape aligned with a revival of the genre that started in Britain during the 1780s. Artists celebrated rural life, elevating the countryside to an arcadia threatened by the Industrial revolution. In terms of subject matter, the paintings of George Morland (1763-1804) were important sources of inspiration for Barker. Morland had specialised in the production of rustic scenes and textured landscapes informed by Dutch Golden Age painting, such as The Old Water Mill (Fig. 1, 1790, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven).5 Alike the present work, the painting suggests the persistence of a rugged way of life untamed by modernity. Within Barker’s own production, A Wooded River Landscape with Drovers can be closely compared to Figures by a Cottage, a Man on a Horse Crossing a Brook (Fig. 2, Private collection) from the same year, where old buildings surrounded by vegetation and the placement in the foreground of a small group of figures in a river reappear. Cottages are also the protagonists of some of the watercolours that served as sources for Fielding’s aquatint engravings (Fig. 3), some of which were published in the 1843 reprint of English Landscape Scenery (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5). Cows are recurring motifs in Barker’s oeuvre. In Landscape with Cattle (Fig. 6, Private collection) and A Wooded River Landscape with Cattle (Fig. 7, Metropolitan Museum of art, New York), they appear in groups of two or three, the river’s water reaching their ankles.

Fig. 7. Benjamin Barker of Bath, A Wooded River Landscape with Cattle, oil on paper mounted on card, 14 x 19.1 cm, 1826, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Although the scenery is that of the British countryside, the present painting shows the influence of seventeenth-century Italian painter Salvator Rosa (1615-1673), whose art was in vogue in England during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At the time, numerous artists considered him as a proto-Romantic painter and the precursor of the Picturesque movement.6 The scene in A Wooded River Landscape with Drovers echoes Rosa’s mountainous, wild sceneries, as well as his gloomy, stormy skies. The ruined tree trunk on the right side of the composition might attest Barker’s knowledge of Rosa’s landscapes, where diagonal trees and broken branches often recur. Cloudy skies and wooded hills also abounded in the oeuvre of Jacob van Ruisdael (c.1628-1682), another significant source of inspiration for Barker. As exemplified by the present work, Barker derived from Ruisdael a use of sparse, dramatic lighting to define the shape of structures and of a limited, austere colour palette privileging dark greens, greys and browns. Similarly to Ruisdael, Barker rendered different textures through brushstrokes of varying intensity, as those suggesting the effects of the gnarled trunk and flowing water.

Fig. 8. Thomas Gainsborough, The Watering Place, oil on canvas, 147.3 x 180.3 cm., before 1777, The National Gallery, London.

The present painting also reveals Barker’s knowledge of British landscapists. At around the same time the work was executed, Turner was painting views of the wild and wooded English countryside, a subject that he later explored during his stays in Switzerland. A Wooded River Landscape with Drovers is also indebted in the anti-classical landscapes of Gainsborough – whose style Barker had studied through the work of his brother Thomas – where huts, peasants and cattle have replaced the usual classical elements of ancient ruins. In particular, the present work can be compared to Gainsborough’s The Watering Place (The National Gallery, London, Fig. 8), where a group of cows has been herded to drink in a stream while the sun sinks behind the hills, an invisible source of light illuminating them in the foreground.

A Wooded River Landscape with Drovers was once in the collection of Sir John Gladstone, 1st Baronet (1764–1851), a wealthy Scottish merchant and father of the British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898). In 1829, Gladstone purchased Fasque House, a Scottish estate in Kincardineshire, which later became the family home.7 The present work hung there for decades, until 2008 when the estate’s collection was sold at auction.8

 

 

 

 

1 For biographical information on Benjamin Barker of Bath, see Iain McCallum, Thomas Barker of Bath: The Artist and His Circle, (Bath: Millstream Books, 2003).
2 J. Farington, Vol. VIII, 10 November 1807: “The two Barkers [are] very ingenious;... Benjamin, the younger brother, is the better landscape painter.”
3 Ibid., p. 82.
4 Ibid., p. 94.
5 William Vaughan, British Painting. The Golden Age, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999), p. 155.
6 On the appreciation of Salvator Rosa in England, see “Works of Salvator Rosa in England”, in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. XVI, no. 81, December 1909, pp. 146-147, and 149-150.
7 For a history of the Gladstone family, see Sydney Checkland, The Gladstones: A Family Biography, 1764–1851, (Cambridge: University Press, 1971).
8 Christie’s, London, Fasque The Scottish Seat of the Gladstones, 7 May 2008.

 

 

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Condition:

The work is in good condition. The canvas is unlined and original in size. The painting has been framed recently.

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