Robert Hills isn’t a name to conjure with nowadays: you are unlikely to have heard of him. He was a sturdy, dependable painter, mostly in watercolour, of rural scenes, with farm animals usually much in evidence. But he lived through the great revolution in watercolour painting that changed people’s way of thinking about that very English medium. One or two star performers – Turner, Cozens, Girtin – had made astonishing technical innovations and opened up a whole new world of possibilities for it. And in 1804 a group of watercolour artists in London founded a Society of Painters in Water Colours that confirmed their new professional standing. Hills was the first Treasurer of this new society, and exhibited with them for many years.
He made a professional virtue of his technical resourcefulness, advertising the wide variety of the subjects in which he was proficient: “landscapes, moon-lights, church-pieces, views of Vesuvius, &c., wherein the different effects of the sun, fire, &c. are introduced in such a manner as to render them far superior to any other kinds of paintings.” One point of the technical virtuosity of the new generation of watercolourists was that they could rival the dramatic and expressive effects of oil painters – the reference to Vesuvius in Hills’s prospectus was meant to be noted. But his best-known speciality was more modest: scenes of the countryside of southern England, in which the textures of richly-leaved mature trees were combined with farm animals – sheep, cattle and deer – rendered with the loving accuracy of a keen observer of nature.
This atmospheric winter scene is a perfect example of the new skills in action, in the context of his most familiar subject matter. With its strong contrasts of tone, from the gloomy rafters of the barn to the brilliant white of the newly-fallen snow, the subject goes far beyond the traditional soft blues and greens of 18th-century view-making. In fact it takes its cue from a specific 17th-century oil painting, a splendid winter scene by Rubens with figures in a barn that was in England in the early nineteenth century and was acquired by the Prince Regent, George Prince of Wales. Hills evidently saw it, and was sufficiently impressed to be spurred to imitate it, though not to copy it, and not in oils but in his preferred medium of watercolour.
So instead of thick white paint to represent the snow, all the white parts of the picture are simply the white of his untouched paper, given extraordinary effectiveness by their context of richly coloured pigment. The other elements take their key from this, and Hills has flicked out small dots from the darker paint to evoke the lightly-falling flakes that obscure the farther details of the scene in a frosty haze. There’s a great deal of detail, too: the horses tethered under the shelter of a lean-to outside a brightly-lit shop, the bare branches of the trees, the approaching covered cart, a far-off inn with its tall sign, a man huddled against the snow as he makes his way towards us with his dog. All this is seen beyond the interior of the barn, where several people and animals are concentrating on getting warm and fed: a family is unpacking its evening meal on the right and, by implication, the artist himself is looking out through the proscenium arch created by the impressive framework of ancient beams that support the barn.
A remarkable technical feat, and a suitably seasonal subject to welcome in the New Year. Happy 2023!