Paul Sandby and his “Real Views from Nature”

Every so often an artist comes along who manages to change the way people think about or record the world, and in the process help launch a new kind of art. It happened in the mid-18thc in Britain when a school of landscape painting emerged, unlike anything which had preceded it .  The man largely responsible was Paul Sandby.

He’s not exactly a household name but as the New York Times said about an exhibition of his work in 2010 “he comes out as the unlikely founding father of a dazzling school of European art.” 

It was Thomas Gainsborough himself no slouch at landscape painting who told a potential client  in 1764 that if he wanted “real Views from Nature in this Country”,  he should turn to Sandby, who was “the only Man of Genius … who has employ’d his pencil that way”

Sandby’s  images contributed to the emerging appreciation of British landscape, the development of domestic tourism and the way that landscapes and even gardens were appreciated and portrayed both then and today.

Sandby’s family background was considerably more humble than that his great contemporaries Gainsborough, Constable or Reynolds.  He was born in Nottingham, the son of a framework knitter, in 1731 although little else is known about his early life or that of  his brother Thomas who was about 8 years older. They were probably apprenticed to a local surveyor, before in 1742 Thomas landed a job working as a military draughtsman in the Ordnance Office in the Tower of London. He was later appointed to the staff of the Duke of Cumberland who commanded the government’s forces which crushed Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden in 1745, earning himself the nickname Butcher Cumberland. In the aftermath Scotland was effectively treated  as a colony.

To help   prevent further rebellions it was decided in 1747  to map the Highlands properly and to build new “king’s roads”. This required military surveyors and cartographic draughtsmen, although only a small team was recruited.  It was probably through the good offices of Thomas that Paul, at the grand old age of 16, was appointed  “the chief Draftsman of the fair Plan,” responsible for collating field measurements and sketches and undertaking some of the graphic work.

While the main engineer and surveyor William Roy probably supplied the fine detail and lettering, Sandby was chiefly responsible for the way the terrain was shown so artistically  in such detail. The original survey was later tidied up and copied, not always completely accurately and then reduced in scale.  It remained the only standard topographic map of Scotlandprior to the Ordnance Survey mapping in the 19th century. 

Paul Sandby remained with the survey for some five years, and while in Scotland also sketched and painted for his own amusement, as well as undertaking a few private commissions.  It was in Scotland too that he began to learn the skills of engraving, taking lessons and even etching “a number of scenes in the neighbourhood, which were done on the spot on the copper”.  More importantly from today’s perspective is that he pioneered the depiction of the Scottish landscape, as he was later to do in Wales and lesser known parts of England. His sketches and paintings record the “improvements” that were taking place, and the opening up of the country to travel and thus “progress”.

View near Dumbarton c.1747                                                                                                                                         a series of sketches, drawn separately, and the joined to create a panorama, from an extra-illustrated copy of Thomas Pennant’s Tour of Scotland , 1772. 

For more on the survey of Scotland in general see the National Library of Scotland website,  and for more on the watercolour of the surveying party in particular see Surveying Scotland by John Bonehill and Stephen Daniels on the British Library website.

Their work on the survey of Scotland must have been favourably  noticed by Cumberland because Thomas was soon to join his  staff at Windsor where the Duke was Ranger of the park.  He was later joined there by Paul who left Scotland in 1752.

The brothers  gave art classes and between them produced a series of engravings of Windsor Great Park which were published in 1754 and republished  in 1772.  

Thomas was later promoted to a new position as Deputy Ranger and it’s likely he was the person responsible for planning  the remodelling of the estate, with its buildings, monuments, improved plantations and woodlands, as well as a series of grand vistas, that featured on these prints.

A set of London views came out in the late 1750s probably because Paul had  moved to Carnaby Market in Soho and was obviously now recording his new surroundings.

In  1757 Paul  married Anne Stogden  and they had soon had three children, two sons and a daughter.  In 1766 they took a house round the corner in Poland Street, although  he and his family continued to spend a lot of time  with Thomas and his family at Windsor .

The brothers were now earning their livings as artists and Luke Herrman, Sandby’s biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,  argues there that during the 1750s and 1760s it is often difficult to differentiate between their work, although  there is no doubt of Paul’s superiority in the depiction of figures.

By 1761 Sandby was an acknowledged master in his field and had his portrait painted by Francis Cotes. Two years later his status was confirmed when the portrait was turned into a mezzotint for sale in London’s print shops, with the inscription ‘Ruralium Prospectuum Pictor’ or Painter of Rural Prospects.

Neither brother went into the fashionable and lucrative business of portrait painting, or the more prestigious field of grand history painting practiced by Benjamin West, president of the the Royal Academy of which they were both founder  members in 1768.  Paul exhibited at the RA almost year until his death while Thomas  was later made the first professor of architecture at the Academy, and later Architect of the Kings Works in 1777.


Paul  satirised Hogarth’s famous Analysis of Beauty  with a series of eight powerful etchings published in 1753–4 under the titleThe Analysis of Deformity.   A few years later, in 1760, he  published Twelve London Cries, although  there are many more  drawings of street characters, both in the British Museum and at  the Yale Center for British Art. But he was already moving away from figurative work to landscape, sometimes in gouache and sometimes in  watercolour, and often on commission.

These commissions help show trends in garden and estate layout. Hackwood, for example, was renowned for its French style classical garden  with a geometric pattern of avenues, canals, and basins, and pavilions designed by James Gibbs. However in Sandby’s view  almost none of this is visible  presumably because  his patron, the Duke of Bolton, wanted a wilder more rustic setting in line with the beginnings of the “picturesque” movement. 

Windsor and its surroundings were to be the principal subjects of much of his output through the 1760s, and clearly one of his favourite places was his brother’s house there.


Many of these views are panoramas combining  accurate and meticulous detail and delicacy of colour. According to  Herrman,  it was probably because of the high quality of these drawings and others like them,  that gained Sandby the title ‘father of English watercolour‘.

The Flower Garden at Nuneham Courtney, engraved by William Watts after Paul Sandby. Image scanned from Mavis Batey’s Jane Austen and the English Landscape [1996]

But Sandby was more than just a talented sketcher, figurative artist and watercolourist. He  mastered of almost every artistic medium then current including oil, which he took up early in his career, although most of these early works have been lost.  The best surviving pieces are  two views of Lord Harcourt’s new house  at Nuneham Courtney. [Unfortunately I can’t track them down, but there are several engravings  based on his  paintings].

Nor did he did not forget his military connections and the art of accurate topographical drawing. Indeed in 1768 he took up the post of  chief drawing master at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, which trained officers in the royal artillery and engineers in the art of accurate landscape recording.  It was not a full-time position – usually only 2 days a week – but this paid him a useful £150 a year and he continued to teach there for nearly 30 years, taking lodgings nearby.

Classes in “landscape and perspective”were held every morning alongside other more “modern” subjects such as maths and geography.  The officers he trained were responsible for producing working drawings for military and naval operations and through them Sandby’s influence and techniques spread far and wide at both at home and  in the colonies.

At the same time he gave private lessons  to not only his patrons  including Lord Harcourt and Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, but to many others from the aristocracy and gentry. This helped raise the status of landscape in comparison with other more traditional and accepted genres of painting. 


Sandby also popularised a new printing technique: the aquatint. .This proved a much better way of reproducing watercolour than engraving. [More about the technicalities on the British Library website] He used it to produce several series of prints of Wales, which was becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination among travellers and artists in search of the picturesque and the romantic.


One set of Welsh scenes was published in 1775 following a tour he did with Joseph Banks, and another in 1776 following a trip with  Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, with two more series of aquatints of Welsh subjects in 1777 and 1786.   As I showed in earlier posts until he began publishing his prints Wales was still  viewed by most English people  as unknown, oddly quaint or  “other”.   Sandby, however, was concerned not just to represent Welsh  “romantic” landscapes with its abundance of castles  but also its agricultural and commercial activity, as well as river and road transport. In the end he produced over 100 prints of Welsh landscapes which became extremely popular and a boost to tourism.

His move to using aquatint did not stop him engraving as well. The Virtuosi’s Museum, with 108 plates each showing 3 small engravings was published in parts, between 1778 and 1781.  This was later reissued with even more plates in 1783 under the title of  A Collection of one Hundred and Fifty Select Views in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, with texts in both English and French.

In 1772 Paul and his family moved to his final London home, 4 St George’s Row, Bayswater, close to the Bayswater turnpike on the Oxford Road which had with fine views out over Hyde Park and as far as the Surrey Hills.

A studio at the end of the garden, probably designed by his brother, and made famous by his paintings of it, was used for teaching and for his weekly salon. where according to his friend James Gandon, the architect, “a circle of intellectual and attached friends, comprising the most distinguished artists and amateurs of the day…  assembled, and formed a conversazione on the arts, the sciences, and the general literature of the day” 


 Looks like Sandby himself wasn’t a great gardener – certainly not when compared to the family next door! But he must have liked the view since there are several versions  of the scene in different media, including one drawn on a very windy day.

In 1793 Sandby was given an unusual commission  from Sir Nigel Gresley of Drakelow Hall near Burton upon Trent.  It was paint to paint a huge mural of an imaginary landscape across all four walls of his dining room. Unfortunately The building was sold and demolished in 1934 and replaced by a power station but one wall was saved and can now be seen in  the V&A.

It has a tranquil view of Dolbadarn Castle on the lake Llyn Peris in north Wales, with the mountains of Snowdonia beyond, and shows that although most of Sandby’s work was on a small scale he  could also work with complete authority on this much larger scale.


Most of what we know about the later  years of Sandby’s life comes from the frequent references to him in fellow artist Joseph Farington’s  Diary.  In 1794 for example, Farington noted that some of Sandby’s watercolours were exhibited in Poggi’s saleroom, priced from 24 to 2 or 3 guineas, and that ‘they are admired but do not sell‘.

With sales in decline  he had increasing financial difficulties.  To help him out the Royal Academy appointed him deputy librarian.  His wife Anne died in 1797 and as Sandby himself grew older his health deteriorated and  his eyesight began to fail.    Indeed in the end he had to ask the Academy for financial support and was awarded a pension of £60pa.

Nevertheless throughout all this he continued to work, but as his health prevented him from travelling so often or so far there are more imaginary scenes. 

Some critics have said that his work later in life is somewhat cruder and less accurate but I suspect that is because he was shifting away from the strict accuracy of military-style topographical work to a freer style better suited to landscape painting. Critics suggest that this later work with its looser rendering of detail was very influential on the next generations of  British watercolourists.

Sandby died at home at 4 St George’s Row on 8 November 1809, and was buried at St George’s, Hanover Square. Since then his reputation as a pivotal figure in the development of landscape painting has never been disputed, and today  his standing is as high as ever. His work now fetches high prices in the salerooms, with, for example, one of his  views of Luton Hoo done for the Marquess of Bute, selling for £340,000 in 1996.


The first large scale exhibition of his work marked the bicentenary of his death in 1809 and was held at the Castle Museum in his  home town of Nottingham, in partnership with the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Academy. The catalogue of the exhibition is still readily available and is the best place to start looking for more information. But also check the websites of  the  Royal Collection which has the largest collection of his work, much of it bought by George IV, and those of the British Museum, and the Yale Center for British Art.



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