Before picture postcards were invented, William Callow’s watercolours satisfied the growing demand for travel imagery depicting scenic views and picturesque corners of European cities.
Over the course of his long career, Callow’s working methods and choice of subjects barely changed, and his prolific oeuvre represents the final expression of the early 19th-century topographic watercolour tradition, of which he was the direct heir.
From the 1830s until the early years of the twentieth century he exhibited annually at the Society of Painters in Water Colours, and in 1907, at the age of 95, he attended his own retrospective exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in London. The introductory note to the catalogue by HM Cundall drew attention to the artist’s traditional approach:
It is somewhat surprising how very slightly Callow’s broad style of painting which he first learnt in Paris has changed, for those works executed during the present century have the same free handling of pure water-colour. It will be noticed that he has strictly adhered to the early principles of the Old Society, forbidding the use of body-colour…
At the age of 11, Callow became an apprentice to Theodore Fielding who trained him in watercolour drawing and aquatint engraving. In 1829 Callow travelled to Paris in order to work for the publisher Jean-Frédéric d’Ostervald and with Newton Fielding, a brother of Theodore, who had set himself up there as a successful engraver.
In Paris, Callow discovered the work of Richard Parkes Bonington and was encouraged by Thomas Shotter Boys, an associate of Bonington’s, to concentrate on watercolour work. His progress in the medium was rapid and he became popular as a teacher of watercolour painting in the English style.
In his autobiography Callow recounts the ‘considerable attention’ his work attracted at the Salon of 1834, ‘as the art of watercolour painting was practically unknown in Paris at the time’, and his subsequent appointment as drawing master to the family of King Louis-Philippe. Callow returned to England in 1841 where his works found favour and were admired for their dashing execution.
An indefatigable traveller by coach and on foot in the days before the arrival of the railway, Callow regularly visited Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Holland. He also went on sketching tours all over Britain and appears to have been particularly fond of the commanding prospect across the River Swale to Richmond Castle, taking in the stone bridge and part of the town. Callow recorded the scene in a watercolour of 1843 (now in the Tate, London) before making another visit to Richmond in 1858, ‘where we greatly enjoyed some exquisite drives in the neighbourhood’, returning to a nearby spot where he painted the version in the Art Gallery of NSW collection.
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017