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Admired by Tom Roberts and Van Gogh

George John Pinwell A seat in St James’s Park 1869

When the Australian painter Tom Roberts saw George John Pinwell’s 1869 watercolour A seat in St James’s Park – now in the Art Gallery of NSW collection – he described it as ‘full of the most intense and dramatic interest’.

He wrote in the Melbourne Argus in 1891 of Pinwell’s fine characterisation of everyday Londoners from different social worlds. ‘No figure there is the least conscious of anything but its own little world; five people seated together yet utterly apart.’

Roberts continued: ‘The gentleman “on his uppers”, whose fixed gaze seems caught by the coloured balloon of the little girl looking with the open curiosity of childhood at him, and who is in turn forgotten by the nurse who listens, rapt, to the blandishments of the lifeguardsman, with the woman and boy, street musicians, counting their coppers, make the group on the seat; while, passing at the back, is a gentleman with some game, some washerwomen taking home their baskets, and resting for a moment while one adjusts her hair; and through the park gates, a great carriage and pair entering. This is about the finest and most earnest of all the works in the room, and a most fortunate possession for Sydney.’

The pathos of the scene was given literary expression by the French critic Ernest Chesneau in The English school of painting (1885): ‘On one of the benches in the park sits a man thoroughly worn out in his fight for life. Although he is decently clad, his pale, wan features tell of the mental anguish he suffers from his deep poverty, as well as the severe physical agony caused by a fast of forty-eight hours. Beneath his gaze lovers softly converse, and an epicure brushes by the poor famished creature as he passes with the game he is carrying home for dinner. The irony of the picture is acute.’

The combination of realism and sentiment in Pinwell’s art was admired by Vincent van Gogh, who wrote to his brother Theo in January 1883: ‘[Pinwell] was such a poet that he saw the sublime in the most ordinary, commonplace things.’

Pinwell is now described as belonging to a group of illustrators known as the Idyllists. His origins as a designer of black-and-white wood engravings, which he drew in meticulous detail and often directly on the woodblock using small brushes, are evident in the Gallery’s superb work. The delicate stippling in bodycolour, combined with touches of watercolour over opaque paint, capture the shimmering, frosty atmosphere perfectly.

With little formal training, Pinwell made his way towards renown as one of the preeminent illustrators of the 1860s and 1870s. However, he also yearned to develop a career independently of magazine and book publishers. He exhibited watercolours at the Dudley Gallery in Piccadilly, and sought election to the Society of Painters in Water Colours, becoming an associate in 1869 and a full member the following year. He died in 1875, of tuberculosis, aged just 33.

A seat in St James’s Park – considered one of Pinwell’s finest works – is currently on display in the Victorian watercolours exhibition. The genesis of this quintessentially Victorian scene was in the form of a wood engraving that he designed for the popular literary journal Once a Week in 1869. The illustration was published on 26 June, and its success immediately inspired the artist to rework the image into a highly finished watercolour. That painting was bought by Edward Dalziel (of the renowned engraving firm) before being purchased at his sale in 1886 for the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Pinwell developed the watercolour through at least five compositional studies in pencil, black chalk and watercolour. Of these, the small watercolour in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, is closest to the final version. Other preparatory studies are preserved in the British Museum; the Royal Watercolour Society, London; the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford; and the University of Dundee.

The final composition also inspired a second wood engraving. Only several “proof impressions”/collection/works/53.1991/ are known; one of these, engraved by Joseph Swain, is also in the Gallery’s collection.

Joseph Swain after George John Pinwell A seat in St James’s Park 1870

Adapted from the Art Gallery of NSW publication Victorian watercolours

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October 19 2017, 9am
by Peter Raissis
Curator, European prints, drawings and watercolours