Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Discovery of Paris, Watercolours @ The Wallace Collection

Yesterday I spent a few hours at the Wallace Collection, to do a bit of preliminary research for next term's project (18th Century Menswear/'Les Liaisons Dangereuses') and also to have a look round the temporary exhibition: 'The Discovery of Paris: Watercolours by Early Nineteenth-Century British Artists'.

There is no arguing that the architecture of Paris is beautiful, so there was no doubt that I would love this exhibition for the delicate and intricate pencil drawings of the city's oldest buildings. However, I was taken aback by the detail given by the artists, many of whom were primarily architects, to the people in their scenes and the costumes they were wearing. Although the exhibition is small, it paints such a strong and immersive picture of early 19th Century Paris, offering a new perspective on the city from the eyes of the people on the streets.

Many of the artworks featured were painted for British audiences - before the advent of photography, these sketches were used to show those across the channel what the famous city really looked like. Their observatory and descriptive nature make them incredibly valuable sources of costume history reference, in particular for scenes of the working class people. As objective images, they are not skewed by the interests of the wealthy, as many formal portraits are.

Here are a few of my favourite images from the exhibition:

Works by H.A. Baker, R.P. Bonington and T.S. Boys, respectively, showing the architecture of Paris with incredible detail and atmosphere. I particularly like the river scene by Boys, with the buildings (houses or washhouses?!) on the water and washing hung out to dry on the banks.

This painting by John Scarlett Davis, entitled "Porte Saint-Martin" 1831 was my favourite of the exhibition - the attention it pays to the clothing of the working poor is wonderful! I love the bright primary colours and the 'candy cane' red/white stiped skirts. This painting confused me a little though... there seems to be an almost uniform look with the tall white bonnets and shoulder coverings?  Was this a fashion, or work uniform? Or religiously symbolic? And also the skirt lengths are much shorter than I would have imagined - mid-calf to just under the knee on some women? I think I need to do a bit more research to understand properly - my first stop will be the V&A, as this painting is part of their collection.

Great costume detail, with a variety of styles and type of people, in this scene by Thomas Shotter Boys ("The Boulevard des Capucines" 1833)

These candid studies were what took me by surprise - they provide so much information on the everyday clothing of the average people living in the city. Thanks to their simplistic, observational style, we can easily see the colour, pattern and cut of the clothing, as well as any accessories. These are by Ambrose Poynter, an architect, and were painted c.1835.
He also painted the picture below - characters like those in the street scene would have been based on character studies like those above.
I really recommend this exhibition - I will be returning myself very soon! It is on at the Wallace Collection in London until 15th September 2013, and it's free! More information here.

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