Responding to the 'picturesque' movement that was fashionable amongst intellectuals, artists and poets, Sandby painted a number of compositions of ancient woodland and spectacular trees during this period of his career. Often he found his subjects in Windsor Great Park where Thomas, his elder brother, was employed by the Royal Family in the lay-out of parts of the park, forest and the lake at Virginia Water. Paul was a frequent visitor to the Great Park and his son's memoir records that the forest was perhaps the greatest influence on his father’s life.1
Dominating the composition is a majestic and ancient beech tree, whose massive branches 'snake and twist against the pale blue light'.2 Sandby's powers of observation are remarkable and he has successfully captured the peculiar growth habits of this natural giant: from the 'dense foliage... [to the] lichens and mosses that attach themselves to the smooth, olive-grey bark'.3 At the foot of the tree, a woodsman sleeps amongst the roots, having abandoned his cart, his picnic lunch and his axe.
The inclusion of the sleeping man not only reinforces a key 'picturesque' theme, that of the smallness of man within the mighty natural world, but also perhaps introduces the concepts of the peace and stability of old England at a time when war with revolutionary France made the future far from certain.
Impressive and large-scale compositions such as the present watercolour demonstrate how Sandby, one of the great artists from the Age of Enlightenment, anticipates the achievements of artists of the next generation, such as the emotionally charged tree studies of Samuel Palmer or the earthy romanticism of John Constable.
Comparable works by Sandby can be found in the Royal Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Nottingham City Museum and Galleries and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.
1. P. Oppé, Sandby Drawings at Windsor Castle, London 1957, p. 1
2. J. Wordsworth, M. Jaye and R. Woof, William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism, New Brunswick 1987, p. 222
3. J. Bonhill & S. Daniels, Paul Sandby Picturing Britain, London 2009, p. 230
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