Richard Wilson The White Monk

Richard Wilson The White Monk

by Martin Postle

Oil on canvas, 25 x 31 ¼ in; (63.5 x 79.4 cm)
Richard Wilson - The White Monk
The White Monk by Richard Wilson is a picture of seminal importance in the history of eighteenth-century European art; one of a number of major works in which Wilson combined the traditions of the historical Grand Manner landscape painting, established a century earlier by Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet, with direct observation from nature. Wilson’s approach in The White Monk, and successive compositions of this kind, had a transformative effect on his own art, and upon successive generations of landscape painters, anticipating and influencing the revolution wrought by Turner and Constable in the early decades of the nineteenth century.1

The significance of The White Monk is underpinned by the fact that from its first conception, quite possibly during the time that Wilson was resident in Italy during the 1750s, it became a central composition in his oeuvre, replicated time and again both in the artist’s own studio and by later followers and copyists. To own a version of The White Monk was a benchmark of taste and sophistication, signalling an appreciation of an advanced understanding of the contemporary Grand Tour aesthetic. It also proved a money spinner to the artist, Wilson apparently referring to such compositions as ‘good breeders’2. Today, versions of The White Monk can be found in collections across Britain, Europe, and the United States of America, varying in size, quality, and compositional features.3 The principal features include two women, or a pair of lovers, seated in the right foreground; a man standing nearby (sometimes with a parasol, sometimes without); a figure on horseback descending to a river valley; two monks on a rocky promontory by a wayside cross (sometimes a chapel); a cascade at the extreme left; a large boulder in the left foreground; a ruined architectural structure in the middle distance leading to a mountainous horizon.

Despite its evident popularity, its ubiquitous manifestations, and its importance in the canon of British and European art, the picture defies categorisation. Unusually, for a ‘classical’ landscape, Wilson’s subject is not taken from literature or classical mythology, but is his own invention, set not at some undetermined place in the distant mythical past but in an identifiable location which exists in the modern world. Also, while the picture is called The White Monk, it is not known whether Wilson himself referred to it by that title.4 Neither is it known whether he ever exhibited it at a public exhibition, nor exactly when he first conceived of the subject, or even the identity of the prime, original version. An investigation of the version in the Cobbe Collection, which has not featured in any previous literature, provides an opportunity to provide an answer some of these questions.

Before his departure for Italy in 1750, Richard Wilson, then in his late thirties, had devoted his professional life principally to portraiture, with only occasional forays into landscape; and even these were principally urban or suburban views.5 It was while in Venice, from 1750 to 1751, that Wilson was encouraged by the landscape painter Francesco Zuccarell to turn his attention seriously to the genre. By the time Wilson reached Rome he was firmly set on his new career, influenced among others by the French master, Claude-Joseph Vernet, then the most celebrated landscape painter in Italy. At this time Wilson also set about painting grand historical landscapes. And it was in Rome that he first conceived and painted The Destruction of the Children of Niobe, his most ambitious ambitious work to date, which appealed to the existing European tradition of epic Grand Manner historical landscape painting.6

More remarkable, however, than Wilson’s rapid transformation into an accomplished a painter of classical landscapes, as witnessed by Niobe, was his willingness to immerse himself as an artist in the first-hand experience of Italy itself; its warm climate bathed in suffused light, its dramatic natural scenery and ancient ruins, and the beguiling combination of the sacred and profane found in its inhabitants. It was his desire to distil this first-hand experience of Italy into a personal pictorial statement couched in the language of high art, that give rise to The White Monk.

It has been affirmed that the earliest version of The White Monk dates from 1761-2; a picture now in the Toledo Museum of Art, which depicts in the right foreground a male and female couple seated under the shade of a parasol.7 However, the first concrete evidence of the existence of the composition is an engraving of a quite different version published in 1765 by London’s leading print publisher, John Boydell, who had already published engravings after other major paintings by Wilson, including Niobe and Phaeton, both made by the leading line engraver of the period, William Woollett. The engraving of The White Monk was made by James Roberts the Elder (1725-1799). The inscription on the print stated simply ‘Engraved from the Original Picture Painted by Mr Richard Wilson’.8 While the word ‘original’ could connote that the print was simply taken from Wilson’s painting, it could also be interpreted as being based upon the first version produced by the artist. At the same time Roberts engraved what appears to be a pendant print of the same dimensions entitled ‘A View in Italy’.9 This engraving was based upon a composition known generally today as Lake Avernus – which features the figure of a monk in conversation with two fishermen. As with The White Monk there are numerous versions of Lake Avernus by Wilson, his studio, copyists and followers. Although no ownership is cited, it is almost certainly based upon a version, which was possibly acquired directly from Wilson by the Irish printmaker and amateur artist, Captain William Baillie (1723-92).10
Richard Wilson - White Monk, detail
As a comparison between the painting and the print reveals, Roberts’s engraving of The White Monk was based upon a version of the picture acquired in the eighteenth century by the Duke of Bridgewater. Although the print shows the composition in reverse, as would invariably be the case in a reproductive copper plate engraving, it is in other respects an exact replica. We can conclude therefore that when Roberts made the print, the appearance of the painting was much as it appears today. However, recent x-rays taken of the Bridgewater painting reveals significant pentimenti. They show that the figure standing behind the two women in the Cobbe version, was originally included in the Bridgewater version, but painted out. There are also alterations in the positioning, and related draperies, of the young woman seated with the basket in the lower right foreground. Originally, as indicated by the x-ray, the woman was depicted in a semi-reclining position, with her legs, covered in folds of drapery, extended towards the left. In addition, a piece of lighter coloured drapery extended to the right, wrapped partially around the basket. It is significant, therefore, that the original pose of the woman, and the configuration of the draperies, resemble closely the same figure in at least five other versions of the painting; notably the present one in the Cobbe collection, a version formerly in the collection of Walter Stoye of Headington House, Oxford, and versions (in which the young man holds a parasol) belonging to the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and the National Museum, Wales.

The pre-twentieth century history of the versions at Smith College and the National Museum, Wales, is unknown. However, ownership of the Blaffer version can be traced back to the eighteenth century, possibly even to Wilson’s studio. In 1946 it was sold from the collection at Langley Park, Norfolk, which had been built for Sir William Beauchamp-Proctor 1st Baronet (1722-1773), and who was succeeded by his son, Sir Thomas Beauchamp-Proctor, 2nd Baronet (1756-1827). An account of the collection at Langley Park in the early 1820s indicates that it was a treasure trove of High Art, much of it gathered during or as a result of successive Grand Tours. The White Monk hung as a centre-piece in the North Dining Room, given pride of place in the elevated company of old-master landscapes of the Italian and Dutch Schools. Precisely when the painting was acquired is not known, but Sir William Beauchamp-Proctor had evidently travelled to Italy to undertake his Grand Tour around 1750, at the very time that Wilson was in Italy.11 His son, Sir Thomas, also travelled to Italy in 1777. It is not known precisely when The White Monk was acquired, but it was probably purchased by Sir William as a Grand Tour souvenir at some point in the 1760s, when Wilson was operating a lucrative studio practice and before his rapid decline early the following decade.

The Blaffer version, in terms of its compositional features – notably the youth holding the parasol, the configuration of the foreground rocks and staves, and the landscapes background – is virtually identical to the versions at Smith College and the National Museum of Wales They are, moreover, painted on the same size, measuring around 36 by 51 inches. And while they can be differentiated in terms of style and technique, they represent, collectively, polished performances; products of Wilson’s adept studio production line.

The Cobbe, Bridgewater and Stoye pictures also form a triumvirate in terms of their compositional features, style and technique. Collectively, they represent the most significant versions of what would appear to be the earliest manifestation of The White Monk.12 The precise whereabouts and ownership of the Cobbe version before it entered the present collection is unknown.13 However, it is possible to trace the provenance of both the Bridgewater and Stoye versions back to Wilson’s studio.

In November 1754, the young Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, arrived in Rome in the course of his Grand Tour. There, guided by the prominent antiquarian, Robert Wood, he purchased works in rapid succession by Vernet, Mengs and Wilson, from whom he acquired a version of The Destruction of the Children of Niobe and Phaeton, and also, perhaps, a version of The White Monk. It is also possible that The White Monk did not enter his collection until 1799, when Bridgewater is recorded as having acquired an unidentified picture by Wilson together with two pictures by Claude Lorrain from Longford Castle.14 That The White Monk was possibly not in the possession of the Duke of Bridgewater when it was engraved by Roberts, may be inferred from the fact that his name does not feature as owner, as it does for example in William Woollett’s engraving of Phaeton, published in 1763.

The Stoye collection version is presently untraced, although a black and white photograph of the picture, illustrated in Constable’s 1953 catalogue raisonné, indicates that compositionally it mostly closely resembles the Cobbe version, notably in the configuration of the distant mountainscape and the inclusion of the youth standing behind the young women.15 In the later nineteenth century, the Stoye version belonged to the Reverend Golding Palmer, of Holme Park, Sonning.16 Golding Palmer was a direct descendant of Robert Palmer (1713-87), principal agent to the 5th Duke of Bedford, whose son, the Marquess of Tavistock, was an early patron of Wilson. It seems likely, therefore, that Robert Palmer commissioned his version of The White Monk from Wilson. It is also significant, given the Duke of Bedford’s patronage of Gainsborough, that Palmer also commissioned two versions of his own portrait from Gainsborough, one of which also descended to Golding Palmer.17

Although is is not possible to comment in detail on the appearance of the Stoye version, it is worth noting that it features Wilson’s monogram ‘RW’ (R reversed), confirming that it is likely to be a prime version. Significantly, it is also the exact same dimensions as the Bridgewater version, measuring 21 x 27 ½ inches. It is, therefore, quite possible that both the Bridgwater and Stoye versions were based upon the Cobbe version, which must in turn also pre-date the publication of the engraving in 1765, and that these three versions were at one time together in Wilson’s studio, either in Rome or London. Certainly, close inspection of the Bridgewater version indicates that it was painted at the same time as the Cobbe version.18

In the Cobbe version the canvas is stretched on a wooden stretcher of five members, with a vertical cross member at the centre. The Bridgewater version, which is small, is stretched upon four members. Cusping on the weave on all four sides of the Cobbe version shows it was not significantly cut down during the relining. (There is a complex tear in the upper right quarter with attendant losses.) X-rays also reveal that the canvases of the Cobbe and Bridgewater versions share an identical weave pattern and thread size.

With regard to the paint surface, in the Cobbe version a pale grey priming survives uncovered by paint along the top and (viewer’s) left edges, while unprimed and unpainted original canvas survives along the right edge. A band of retouching at the very bottom edge suggests a similar situation there. These observations confirm that the painting retains its original size in full, and that, apart from the complex old tear at the top right which is mainly contained within the foliage of the trees, the Cobbe version survives in a fair state of preservation. Some of the darks at the base of the trees have suffered minor abrasions and there are a few instances of vehicular drying craquelure in the lower areas of the landscape. The colour of the lower area of the clouds was altered by the painter, but not advancing the newer colour into the interstices between leaves and branches, and stopped short at the left-hand tree trunk. In the space between the tree trunks and the right edge, some vertical poplar trees have been begun, barely pencilled in. In the same area of the Bridgewater version, these are present and taken to completion. In the Bridgewater version the sky is affected by severe vehicular wrinkling perhaps as a result of one layer being painted over another before the latter was properly dry. A change to the colour of the clouds similar to that in the Cobbe version is also observable. Finally, as noted earlier, the lower drapery of the left-hand female figure originally followed the form of that in the Cobbe version but was altered subsequently.

We know, from the evidence of Roberts’s engraving, that The White Monk was certainly in existence by 1765. But, circumstantial evidence contained within composition itself suggests that it may have originated during Wilson’s sojourn in Italy during the 1750s; the fundamental point being that it portrays a specific location, rather than being a generalised evocation of an Arcadian landscape informed by the visual language of Claude Lorain and philosophical concepts of the sublimity and beauty.19 While Wilson used a number of standard Claudean devices in this avowedly ‘classical’ composition, including the framing trees to the right and the contrasting plans of dark and light tones to articulate the recession of the landscape, its principal characteristic centres upon a sense of place and a site specific narrative.

There can be no doubt that the inspiration for Wilson’s landscape is the countryside flanking the river Aniene, a tributary of the Tiber, which rises from springs in the Simbruini mountains around Trevi nel Lazio, flowing past the towns of Subiaco and Vicovaro before descending the gorge at Tivoli, and wending its way through the campagna towards Rome. The Aniene was steeped in history, and in classical times, the tufaceous limestone (tufa lionato) which shapes the contours of hills and gorges, was an important source of building material in ancient Rome. Pitted with indentations and covered in lichen, it also had immense pictorial appeal. Mighty aqueducts supplied Rome with water from artificial lakes formed by the Emperor Nero at Subiaco. Although they had fallen into disuse by the medieval period, their vestigial yet still powerful presence – strung out across the landscape – is indicated in the mid-ground of Wilson’s composition; a reminder of Rome’s faded glory and a reaffirmation of the sense of place and time.

Several years ago, in the course of visit to the Aniene valley, following quite deliberately in the footsteps of Wilson, my colleagues and I, Robin Simon and Jonny Yarker, concluded that the promontory to the left of The White Monk was probably inspired by the dramatic cliff top setting of San Cosimato at Vicovaro, while the vista at the right looks east towards the Simbruini mountains. In this region other important Benedictine monasteries, at Mentorella, Guadagnolo and Subiaco, perch on similar rocky outcrops. The presence of the flagellant Benedictine monks on the promontory in Wilson’s painting – engaged in the mortification of the flesh – forms a quite deliberate contrast to the sultry women lounging in the valley below; positioned and attired provocatively, adjacent to an established pilgrim route, as the the figure on horseback, the wooden staves on the ground, and perhaps even the hovering presence of the young man with the staff, suggest. Here the sacred and profane are combined in one image; competing spheres of virtue and pleasure.20 While the composition was revisited and repeated in various different formulations by Wilson and his studio assistants in London during the 1760s, its site specific composition suggests that it was formulated originally in Italy, sometime in the mid-1750s in the course of the artist’s peregrinations in the Roman countryside, and that the present version in the Cobbe collection may have been the first iteration.

Richard Wilson - White Monk, detail

1 A number of the arguments and observations advanced in this catalogue entry are related to the following publications: Martin Postle and Robin Simon, Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014; Martin Postle, ‘Meditations on The White Monk. Richard Wilson and the Art of “Good Breeding”’, in James Clifton and Melina Kervandjian, eds., A Golden Age of European Art. Celebrating Fifty Years of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016, pp. 101-114.
2 The term ‘good breeder’ was first used in print in 1824 by Wilson’s biographer, Thomas Wright, who stated that Wilson had stated that ‘he must make it produce as much as it was able’. Thomas Wright, Some Account of the Life of Richard Wilson, Esq., RA, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1824, p. 33.
3 For catalogue entries relating to the various versions and copies of The White Monk see W.G. Constable, Richard Wilson, London: Routledge and Paul, 1953, pp. 227-30; Richard Wilson Online Catalogue Raisonné, published by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art,
4 The composition was first referred to in print as ‘The White Monk’ by the amateur painter and engraver, Captain Thomas Hastings, in a volume of his engravings after paintings by Wilson, which he published in 1825. As Hastings noted, ‘This Picture, ‘derived its appellation from the circumstance of a monk in white, praying at the foot of a cross’. His engraving was made from one of two versions of the subject, which then belonged to Lady Marianne Ford. Instead of the two young women it features a male and female couple seated beneath a parasol in the right foreground, See Thomas Hastings, Etchings from the Works of Richard Wilson, with some Memoirs of His Life, London: Hurst, Robinson & Co., 1825, p. 16. For an impression of Hastings’s print see British Museum, Museum Number 1854,0708.79.
5 They include The Hall of the Inner Temple after the Fire of 4 January 1736/7 of 1737, Westminster Bridge under Construction of 1744, The Cock Tavern, Cheam Common of c.1746-7, Dover of c.1746-7, and roundels of George’s Hospital and the Foundling Hospital of 1746.
6 Wilson painted three versions of the Niobe, the first in Rome for the Duke of Bridgewater (private collection, Ashridge House); another, purchased by the Duke of Cumberland and exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1760 (Yale Center for British Art), and a third, purchased from Wilson by Sir George Beaumont and presented to the National Gallery in 1826 (destroyed 1940).
7 D.H. Solkin, Richard Wilson. The Landscape of Reaction, London: Tate Gallery, 1982, p. 66 and pp. 214-15, no. 103.
8 British Museum Number 1872,0511.391
9 British Museum Number 1852, 1116.544
10 See Richard Wilson Online, P122C,
11 See Postle, 2016, pp. 105-6.
12 In his catalogue raisonné, Constable included ten versions of The White Monk, which share the same composition as the Cobbe and Bridgewater versions. A number of these versions are clearly copies or by followers of Wilson. They include a copy, possibly by Wilson’s studio assistant William Hodges, now in the Royal Academy, and versions in Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, and the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. Constable also includes a version, which recently entered the collection of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden (formerly Ralph Edwards collection), as well as one (untraced), formerly in the collection of Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford. See Constable, 1953, p. 228.
13 Alec Cobbe purchased the picture at Christie’s, London, 1 December 2000, lot. 57. Following an enquiry to Christie’s in autumn 2020, he was informed they had no record other than it had been consigned for sale by a minor dealer in the USA. It is possible that it relates to a painting, measuring 24 x 30 ½ in., sold anonymously at Christie’s, 3 December 1926 (97), which resembled a similar composition formerly in the collection of Walter Stoye. See Constable, 1953, p. 228, ‘II. Without the umbrella:’ (1) and (6).
14 See Peter Humfrey, ‘The 3rd Duke of Bridgewater as a collector of Old Master paintings’, Journal of the History of Collections, vol. 27, Issue 2, July 2015, pp. 214, 224, notes 28 and 48.
15 Constable, 1953, pl. 123a.
16 Constable gives the provenance as follows: Golding Palmer; De Zoete, sold Christie’s, 5 April 1935 (158), bought Koetser; 1935 purchased by Walter Stoye. Constable, 1953, ‘Without the umbrella’, II (1), p. 228. Walter Stoye (1892-1974) was a designer of silverware and Managing Director of the silverware company, Barkentin and Krall of Regent Street. His art collection also included works by Rubens, Turner and Cozens.
17 See Hugh Belsey, Thomas Gainsborough. The Portraits, Fancy Pictures and Copies after Old Masters, 2 vols., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019, vol. 2, pp. 658, no. 705.
18 The two versions were brought together in Alec Cobbe’s studio at Hatchlands in April 2015, when the present author was able to examine them.
19 For a previous interpretation of the composition in the context of a deliberate appeal by Wilson to the political persuasions of reactionary landowning British aristocratic patrons, and the philosophical concept of the concordia discours see Solkin, 1982, pp. 66-70.
20 See Postle, 2016, pp. 109-12.