By the age of ten, Alfred East already displayed a precocious talent for drawing and received his first private commission to make a set of illustrations depicting prehistoric creatures. He worked for his family’s boot company while attending the Glasgow School of Art, his first exhibited works being shown at the Royal Scottish Academy in the 1870s. Around 1882 he decided to pursue painting as a full-time career, and enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris, studying under Tony Robert-Fleury and William Bouguereau.
In 1883 he made his debut at the Royal Academy and at the Royal Society of British Artists with oils and watercolours imbued with the ethos of French naturalism. The following year A glimpse of the Clyde from above Helensburgh was one of two watercolours submitted to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours.
Based on sketches worked up in the studio and completed shortly before his permanent move to London, the watercolour is a fine example of East’s early Scottish landscapes, of which a number show ‘glimpses’ of the River Clyde in winter. Along with the unmistakable influence of the Barbizon School, the work is also an attempt to emulate to some degree the Scottish painter Joseph Farquharson’s popular snowy winter landscapes with sheep.
During the late 1880s and 1890s East’s reputation grew rapidly and several exhibitions of his work were held at the Fine Art Society. As well as becoming a prominent figure in the late Victorian and Edwardian art world – he was elected president of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1906, was knighted by George V in 1910, and in his last years helped establish an art gallery in his home town of Kettering – East was seen as one of the principal interpreters of British pastoral landscape. In 1895 the critic Walter Armstrong wrote of East’s qualities as a lyrical landscape painter who succeeded in capturing ‘atmosphere’ and the ‘mysterious side of nature’:
‘From first to last his way has been to choose some scene which appealed to himself, and then to clothe it in the envelope he prefers. That envelope depends partly upon design, which involves the selection and the shifting of features, as well as the modulation of their contours and masses; partly, and mainly, on the treatment of atmosphere and sky. I do not know any English painter who excels him in the rendering of those delicate, scarcely perceptible vapours which do for a landscape what a fine veil does for a woman.’
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017