In his youth Francis Oliver Finch was a member of the Ancients, a brotherhood of idealistic young artists including Samuel Palmer who lived by the motto ‘poetry and sentiment’, and worked in idyllic seclusion in Shoreham, Kent in the mid 1820s. Its members were united in their veneration of the elderly William Blake, drawing inspiration from his unconventional life and art. However, their landscape imagery stressed a benevolent view of nature, evocative of the ancient Roman poet Virgil’s vision of a golden age of pastoral innocence and abundance.
As well as a painter, Finch was an amateur poet and a man of deep faith, ‘most inclined’, according to Palmer, ‘to believe in Blake’s spiritual intercourse’, and much involved with the Swedenborgian Church. Yet his art is without the same degree of visionary intensity and religious insight that distinguishes the work of Blake and Palmer. Working within a much narrower compass, Finch continued the tradition of pastoral landscape, conjuring an ideal rural life peopled by simple shepherds. The exemplar of this kind of landscape was the French painter Claude Lorrain, whose cult amongst English collectors had taken hold in the 18th century.
The Gallery’s watercolour, with its foreground with framing trees opening out to a middle ground of water and an enclosing distance, is characteristic of Finch’s emulation of the classical pastoral. This basic compositional archetype, combined with such Claudian elements as ruins and herdsmen slowly wending their way home, could be endlessly rearranged, and represented for Finch the epitome of harmonious, poetic expression in pictorial art.
Finch was apprenticed at an early age to John Varley, and remained with the influential watercolourist for five years. By age 19 he was the youngest artist ever to be elected as an associate of the Society of Painters in Watercolours, becoming a full member in 1827. Despite his rather limited production and range, Finch’s achievement was duly acknowledged by his old friend Samuel Palmer, when he wrote to a correspondent in 1863 shortly after Finch’s death: ‘In him we lost the last representative of the old school of watercolour landscapepainting.’
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017