A talented and devoted painter in watercolours, David Law was best known during his lifetime as an etcher, his death notice in The Art Journal in March 1902 remembering him as ‘one of our foremost landscape etchers, and one of the founders of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers… a large-hearted and genial Scottish type.’
Law was apprenticed at an early age to the commercial engraver George Aikman, and in 1845 began attending classes at the Trustees’ Drawing Academy of Edinburgh. Upon completion of his apprenticeship in 1851, he was employed as a map engraver in the ordnance survey office at Southampton. He resigned after 20 years to become a full-time artist, settling in London where he had already started exhibiting his work. According to The Art Journal, ‘he practised water-colour painting with success for many years, maintaining loftily and soundly the rich, solid and conscientious tradition of our fine insular school.’
Law’s landscape subjects ranged from the tranquil expanses of the Thames Valley to the remote grandeur of mountains and waterfalls in Wales and Scotland. Studies made in the outdoors were often worked up into large-scale studio productions, such as Peat moss, Isle of Skye, a somewhat overblown exhibition piece depicting tiny peat gatherers beneath craggy hills and darkening skies.
Law regularly translated his watercolours to copper and reproduced them as etchings, his industriousness and technical command in this activity being widely commended. His work was exhibited with various dealers and at the Society of British Artists (Suffolk Street), Dudley Gallery and the Institute of Painters in Water Colours. Law was also a member of the Scottish Society of Painters in Water Colour.
Law’s The old mill, Betws-y-Coed in the Art Gallery of NSW collection is reminiscent of the Romantic painter David Cox, who made regular pilgrimages to the village of Betws-y-Coed in North Wales during the 1840s and 1850s and popularised the area as a favourite haunt for artists. Artists continued to flock there long after Cox’s death in 1859. Law probably visited and painted at Betws-y-Coed in the 1860s, searching out moody Cox subjects such as this picturesque old mill beside a rushing, rocky stream. The vigorous brushwork and use of transparent washes show the further influence of Cox, who had developed new, more expressive ways of applying and wielding his medium and became something of a model for watercolourists later in the century.
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017