A brief memoir of the artist Richard Wilson RA ( 1714-1782 )

by the late Joseph Farington RA.

The topographical sketcher and artist Joseph Farington (1747-1821) is probably better known for his diaries 1793-1821 that record in detail the everyday life of the Royal Academy in London than for his landscapes, although he was an accomplished artist. A Lancastrian by birth, in 1763 he was apprenticed as a pupil-artist to Richard Wilson [1] which enabled him to acquaint himself with ‘The Father of British Landscape Painting’.
Some short notes he wrote regarding his master and mentor are deposited at The National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth ( Ms. 21820 F ) and are reproduced below. Because of irregularities in spelling, etc., the orthography has been standardised.

Richard Wilson by the German artist Anton Rafael Menges. .1752.

‘Claude Lorrain [2] and Cuyp (3] were painters whose works he most delighted in. The hues in their pictures, and their powers of imitating aerial effects, were the constant theme of his admiration

‘Tight of Air”, was a favourite expression of Wilson. To obtain this he was always striving; and to give a “hollow effect”, as he called it, to his pictures.
Although a picture might be ingenious in other respects, if the colouring wanted harmony it afforded him little pleasure. Standing one day before a large picture of rocks, trees and a waterfall, painted by Bennett for the Duke of Buccleugh, which was executed with facility, but the colouring discordant, “Eggs and Spinach”, said Wilson.
This great master constantly recommended to his pupils to study from nature, observing that: “He who follows must be behind”. Though Wilson painted with a free hand and did not labour the finishing part of his pictures, yet he did not encourage a slight manner of executing. One of his pupils, who was too careless in this respect, after many remonstrances, he humorously tried for a waste of colours.
Wilson did not pay much attention to colours. He used, excepting ultramarines, without that colour. He often asserted the true aerial tints of skies and distances could not be expressed. Wilson’s best pictures were painted between the 40th and 55th years of his age [4]. After the latter period he gradually declined into a weaker manner of painting, and a yellowish green tint prevailed too much over his pictures.
To his pupils Wilson was an excellent master. He had no secrets in his art and his painting room was always open to them. He not only allowed them to attend him while he was painting, whenever they desired it, but would occasionally call them into his room, when he would communicate remarks which, in the course of his practice, had occurred to him and by which he thought they would be benefited. This intercourse was enlivened by the variety of his conversation and he often introduced apt stories which he told with humour and point.
Wilson as a humourist occasionally indulged himself in whimsical singularities.
Before he went to Italy he was a member, and constantly attended The Artists’ Club, held at the Turk’s Head Tavern in Gerard Street, Soho Square. On his return, after an absence of 8 years [5] he did not announce his return or call on any of his aquaintances, but going eariy to
the Club, placed himself in a corner of the room where he formerly was accustomed to sit, and, with a pipe in his mouth as usual, waited the coming of his old companions who were separately surprised to see their old friend in his place and unaltered. Sir Joshua Reynolds [6] and Wilson never were very cordial. Sir Joshua was sometimes unguarded in his expressions and Wilson retorted. Speaking at the Turk’s Head Club one evening of the picture St. Peter the Martyr by Titian, Sir Joshua said, “The landscape and the inferior parts of the picture ” Wilson, taking up a glass said, “My service to you Sir Joshua. The landscape and inferior parts of the picture.”
At the same Club Sir Joshua spoke very highly of Gainsborough. “He is the best landscape painter of the time. Wilson, rising, replied, “and the best portrait painter too.”


1. There is some uncertainty regarding Wilson’s’ d.o.b. Farington gives it as 1714. The Dictionary of Welsh Biography down to 1940 (1959) prefers 1713. The most detailed study of his pedigree : Rosa Baker ‘The Family of Richard Wilson.R A , and its Welsh connections’, Flintshire Historical SocietJournal, 35 (1999), 85-113., inconclusively opts for 1713/4.

2. Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682). French painter and draughtsman whose works influenced a great number of European artists from c. 1640 until the nineteenth century.

3. Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691). Dutch artist reknowned for the application of light into his paintings.

4. That is, the period 1754-1769.

5. His stay in Italy lasted from 1750 until 1757.

6. Sir Joshua Reynolds, portrait painter, became the first President of the Royal Academy in December 1768.

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