Paul Sandby, who was born in Nottingham, became in the course of a long life one of the pioneers of the English watercolour school, which achieved some of the most important developments in European art in the decades before 1800 when the Romantic imagination and sensibility were asserting themselves.
He began, though, in a role at the farthest remove from Romantic feeling, as a draughtsman to the Royal Ordnance, making views that had to be strictly accurate, in the Highlands of Scotland for the Military Survey of North Britain carried out in the years following the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. With that training he was and remained essentially a topographer, a recorder of places and views with historical, military or antiquarian associations. His brother Thomas became artist to the King’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland who, as we saw in connection with Stubbs’s Cheetah, kept a menagerie in Windsor Great Park, of which he was Ranger. Thomas was appointed Deputy Ranger, and the brothers had close associations with Windsor over many years. Some of the most impressive of Paul’s prolific output are views of the castle and its grounds.
In addition to his topographical watercolours he also worked in oil, in etching and in the newly invented medium of aquatint, which added richness of tonal effect to the bare outlines of etching itself. And in similar fashion he explored bodycolor, or gouache: the enrichment of watercolour with opaque white pigment.
This technique made it possible for him to paint night scenes like this one, often featuring spectacular effects of moonlight or, as in this case, fireworks celebrating a royal occasion. Like all the best topographers, Sandby introduced figures to give his views immediacy and to enhance our understanding of the character of the place depicted. His subject here is obscured by darkness, though illuminated by the fireworks – and by a full moon glimpsed through the trees on the left; and we are left in no doubt that what we are seeing is a firework display, thanks to a solitary rocket that disappears upwards into the dark sky. But though we can’t see the celebrations ourselves, we can watch one of their small, very human consequences. It’s a comic sideshow: a drunken reveller is being taken away from his protesting wife and children by a grim-faced member of the Watch, carrying a torch – another source of illumination to contrast with the theatrical lighting on the Round Tower in the Castle itself.
We can speculate on the occasion for the fireworks: perhaps a celebration of the birth of one of the royal children: their third son William was born in August 1765, and Charlotte Princess Royal in September 1766. Sandby could have made drawings at the time, and worked them up later into finished pictures like this. He might have witnessed the fireworks and simply invented the scene as he remembered it, or put it together from several different memories. An artist can commemorate an event by observation, by memory or by sheer imagination. But with Sandby’s training as a military topographer my guess would be that he relied on something actual, something he had witnessed himself, to give his subject the authority of real experience.
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