Themes and Media in Wilson’s Art

Themes and Media in Wilson’s Art

Despite being known for his landscapes over his career of some 45 years, and frequently lauded as the ‘Father of British Landscape’, Wilson did work on other types of painting – notably portraiture - and, within landscape itself, a number of different themes. These included Italian landscapes, Welsh landscapes, and prospects of country estates. In smaller numbers he also treated classical mythology, ancient history, British literature, genre (everyday subjects) and still life.


Portraits were Wilson’s favoured type of painting during the first part of his independent career as a painter from about 1735 to about 1751. They are now a vexed area of his output as numerous mediocre portraits have been wrongly ascribed to him in the past. His sitters included members of his own family, early patrons such as the Lyttelton family, naval officers, and, on at least one occasion, young members of the royal family. During the first year or so of his visit to Italy Wilson continued to paint portraits of associates, including his patron, Thomas Hollis and his friend, the Venetian painter, Francesco Zuccarelli.

Italian Landscapes

In Italy Wilson converted from portraiture to landscape with the encouragement of Zuccarelli and the pre-eminent French landscapist, Claude-Joseph Vernet. Over the five years or so that he spent in Rome (1752–57) he executed many depictions of the city and its monuments, Tivoli and the surrounding Campagna and Castelli Romani as well as Naples and the adjacent area of the southern peninsula. These Italian landscapes were overlaid with an innovative and imaginative use of light and atmosphere which endowed many of them with a mood of ineffable poetry. As souvenirs and evocations works like The Vale of Narni enjoyed great popularity with Grand Tourists travelling in, or returning from, what they took to be a lost Utopia. Many were repeated retrospectively by Wilson or his pupils over the ensuing decades. Ruins figure extensively in Wilson’s Roman and Italianate landscapes. As signifiers of a bygone imperium such pictures as View in the Ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli were guaranteed to appeal to the classically-educated Grand Tourists with their tutor companions – the future rulers and legislators of Britain. Such pictures also presented a stark moral comparison between the decayed condition of modern Rome and its ancient grandeur. The analogy was paralleled in numerous works of literature by Wilson’s contemporaries. John Dyer’s The Ruins of Rome, published in 1740, for example, warned of the danger of modern Britain’s decline through excess and luxury from its current position of wealth and power. To learn more about Wilson's travels in Italy, visit the Yale Center for British Art travelogue containing interactive maps and photographs – Wilson and His Contemporaries in Italy.

Welsh Landscapes

The artist’s native North Welsh landscape inspired some of his most poetic icons such as Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle. The early 1760s saw the first of these, including The River Dee near Eaton Hall. They were commissioned or bought by local landowners, such as Sir Richard Grosvenor and William Vaughan of Cors y Gedol a number of whom were related to the artist. Such themes found a climax in 1771 with the completion of two monumental works, Dinas Bran from Llangollen and View near Wynnstay for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn. In these magnificent compositions, Wilson skilfully combined the particularities of topography with subtle lighting and Arcadian figures, imbuing his native landscape with an Italianate atmosphere and transforming the Welsh countryside into a veritable Arcadia. The appeal of his Welsh landscapes was much enhanced by a rising interest from the 1750s onwards in Welsh history and customs and a marked improvement in roads, giving easier access for travellers. However, the Welsh landscape also spurred Wilson on to his most conceptually innovative picture Llyn Cau,Cader Idris, a subject which he was the first to depict but whose uncompromising starkness meant that the painting remained in his studio until the end of his life. To learn more about Wilson's travels in Wales, visit the Yale Center for British Art travelogue containing interactive maps and photographs – Wilson in Wales


A great proportion of Wilson’s landscapes were at least to some degree topographical, featuring Italian, English or Welsh scenery. (He did not depict Scotland or Ireland). Such compositions originated before his years abroad, with The Foundling Hospital, St George’s Hospital, London and a few other early landscapes. They may be divided into visual records of country seats and estates, such as Croome Court, Worcestershire and more generalised but identifiable settings, such as View on the Thames near Twickenham. These played down the houses featured while emphasising their setting and evoking atmosphere. In other cases, a focal building such as Caernarvon Castle became a favoured motif to which the artist returned time and time again.

Classical Mythology

After Wilson’s return to England, Picturesque or Sublime landscapes in the manner of the Old Masters he most admired, notably Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Dughet and Salvator Rosa, became his constant settings for narratives taken from classical mythology such as Diana and Callisto. These greatly appealed to wealthy patrons schooled in a classical education. They culminated with The Destruction of the Children of Niobe, the pivotal composition of Wilson’s career. This was exhibited at the Incorporated Society of Artists, predecessor of the Royal Academy, in 1760 but Wilson continued to paint or repeat such mythologies throughout his career.

Ancient History

Well versed in classical history from the tutoring of his clergyman father, during the first years of his sojourn in Rome Wilson executed a number of subjects from ancient history of a kind which, under the influence of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Anton Raphael Mengs and the circle of international artists in Rome, were to become the staple of the Neoclassical movement. Beginning with The Summons of Cincinnatus and The Departure of Regulus, they were continued after his return from Italy with Cicero at his Villa and similar works.

Modern Literature

Landscape also provided a sympathetic and suitably evocative backdrop for themes taken from contemporary literature, such as Celadon and Amelia or Solitude, both relating to James Thomson’s highly popular poem, The Seasons, first published in 1730.

Other Subjects

Wilson’s early pictures included a few genre subjects. Some were closely linked with his portraits, such as Head of a Capuchin Monk while others were more ambitious, experimenting with the popular banditti subjects of the day e.g. Landscape with Banditti: The Murder. Wilson landscapes were also sometimes painted as pairs, or pendants, often evoking different times of the day. Morning and evening were indicated by varied skies and lighting in such pairs as The Ruined Arch in Kew Gardens and Kew Gardens: The Pagoda and Palladian Bridge. Such companion pictures were also widespread in the work of Claude-Joseph Vernet and Wilson’s French contemporaries.


Many of Wilson’s landscapes were based on the large number of drawings that he made, during his Italian sojourn. Very few drawings are known from before 1750 and hardly any from after 1757. While in Italy he made some figure drawings, such as Thomas Jenkins or Study of Figures for 'Ego fui in Arcadia' as well as drawings after the motif, such as Two Lions’ Heads. Over this period his drawing technique changed from using black chalk on white paper in a linear style as in The Cascade at Terni to black chalk and stump, with white heightening on grey or toned paper. This transformation came about under the influence of his contemporaries at the French Academy in Rome, such as Charles Micheal-'Angelo' Challe (1718-1778). Wilson made relatively little use of pen and ink, or wash and almost none of watercolour. His drawings were used by the artist as a memory-bank after his return from Italy and although only two sketchbooks have survived, he probably filled more (see Studies and Designs done in Rome in the Year 1752 and Studies by R. Wilson at Rome 1754). The zenith of his graphic oeuvre was reached in the series of 68 presentation drawings that he produced for the Earl of Dartmouth, recording the outstanding sites of interest for the Grand Tourist in the neighbourhood of Rome and Naples. Sadly only about one third of these drawings exist today. In sensitivity and finesse they rank with the outstanding European landscape drawings of the 18th Century.


Richard Wilson himself produced no engravings but prints after his landscapes were in demand following the very successful publication by John Boydell in 1760 of William Woollett’s engraving after Wilson’s Destruction of the Children of Niobe. During the 1760s an increasing number of prints were executed by Woollett and other engravers after Wilson’s most popular landscapes, skilfully marketed by Boydell, Robert Sayer and other publishers. The fashion peaked in the 1770s, when Wilson’s paintings were diminishing in popularity and continued intermittently after the artist had died. He himself made very little money from it.