Peter Lanyon may have been one of the first artists to draw inspiration for his paintings from his experiences of flying high above the earth in a glider. But if the technology available to him was relatively new, the practice of painting or drawing landscapes and cityscapes from a lofty viewpoint was not – artists have been doing it for centuries, sometimes by climbing to the highest point available, sometimes using their imaginations to lift them above the landscape.
Panorama, the fifth display in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery, uses drawings and prints from The Courtauld’s collection to explore some of the ways in which artists used this enduring format before the age of powered flight to express a range of different ideas, from political and military might to Romantic notions of the sublime.
Some of the works on view were made on a scale that mirrors the immensity of their subject matter. Adam Frans van der Meulen’s View of Courtrai, made in 1667 on the eve of the city’s conquest by the French army, records the splendid appearance of Courtrai before its defences were breached on a span so broad that it required three sheets of paper joined together.
Canaletto was no stranger to panoramic views of cities, and the display boasts a handful of his works: an expansive view of London from an imagined vantage point above Old Somerset House (more or less where our current River Terrace now sits), and a pair of etchings depicting the vast square of Prato della Valle in Padua. Canaletto had first undertaken the composition as a painting, but when he decided to include it in his album of etchings, Views of Venice (1741-44), he had to split the view in half so that it would conform to the size and format of the other prints. Put the two prints, Santa Giustina in Pra’ della Valle, Padua and Pra della Valle, Padua side by side and the complete view of the square is reconstituted: the key to the join is a tiny figure in a cloak at the centre.
Other artists managed to create a sense of unbounded space on much smaller sheets. The earliest work in the display, Roelandt Savery’s Mountain landscape (1607), is less than 30 cm across, but thanks to his skilful handling of the black and red chalks, the misty atmosphere he conjures up makes the scene appear vast.
Nearly two centuries later, John ‘Warwick’ Smith accomplished a similar feat in his watercolour The Valley of Terni. Smith visited the valley in Umbria, a favourite stop on the Grand Tour, in the late 1770s, but the watercolour was probably made years later, worked up from on-the-spot sketches and the artist’s imagination and memory. The foreground is alive with detail of almost crystalline refinement, but it fades off into the palest and finest of washes in the distance to create a highly Romantic landscape celebrating the awe-inspiring power of nature.
There’s more to see, including drawings and watercolours by J M W Turner, Francesco Guardi, Thomas Girtin and Francis Towne that explore further possibilities in this unique and long-lived format. We hope you’ll come along and see for yourselves.
Panorama opens 26 September 2015-10 January 2016.