Mountain scenery formed the staple subject matter of Thomas Miles Richardson Jnr, the most gifted of the six artist sons of the Newcastle painter Thomas Miles Richardson. Trained by his father, Thomas Jnr left Newcastle in 1843 and moved to London when he was elected an associate of the Society of Painters in Water Colours. He was made a full member in 1851, thereafter becoming a stalwart exhibitor with this institution.
His colourful watercolours of Northern England and Scottish Highland views, as well as his scenic panoramas of Italy and Switzerland, enjoyed great popularity and fetched high prices, despite the critical opprobrium of John Ruskin who found them overblown and distasteful.
Richardson was especially drawn to the rugged landscape of the Lake District, which had long been an essential destination for artists in search of picturesque or sublime experience, and was widely accepted as Britain’s equivalent of the Alps.
His watercolour Eagle Crag and Gate Crag, Borrowdale, Cumberland could almost serve as an illustration of the picturesque theories popularised by the Reverend William Gilpin in the late 18th century. Gilpin advocated the painterly possibilities of English scenery, and gave great emphasis to the qualities of roughness, irregularity and sudden variation in his definition of picturesque beauty. Artists were also urged to improve nature’s shortcomings by the addition of such features as winding roads, wandering rustics and lightning-blasted trees.
In 1875 when Richardson completed the watercolour – the first work to be commissioned for the Art Gallery of NSW by a non-Australian artist – Nicholas Chevalier and Colin McKay Smith wrote to the Gallery trustees in their capacity as the London Selection Committee entrusted with purchasing works of art for the fledgling Sydney collection:
‘...costing £105 is a picture painted expressly for your National Collection by TM Richardson and besides being one of his best efforts is in itself a noble picture which will be highly prized both by yourselves and your fellow citizens. Mr Richardson has apparently disregarded any purely commercial consideration in the painting of this work as it is in all respects equal to exhibited pictures of his which have been marked 250 Gs [guineas]...’
A second watercolour, Evening, Loch A’an, Grampians, Aberdeenshire, was purchased in 1890; a scene of unspoilt natural beauty in the wilder regions of Scotland, and a manifestation of the widespread enthusiasm for the Highlands, which was cemented from the middle of the century by Queen Victoria’s regular visits to Balmoral Castle.
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017