Monday, August 16, 2010

John Brett - Pearly Summer

Price Realized £144,150

signed and dated 'John Brett 1892' (lower left) and signed and inscribed 'John Brett A.R.A./Putney/London' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
42¼ x 82 1/8 in. (107.2 x 208.7 cm.)

The Artist's Sale, Christie's, London, 15 February 1902, lot 120 (105 gns to Jones).

London, Royal Academy, 1893, no. 153.
Birmingham, Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, 1893, no. 361.
Paris, Société des Artistes Français, Salon de 1894, no. 294, awarded Diploma (?) and 'Mention Honourable'.
London, Galerie Continentale.
Paris, Exposition Universelle, 1900, British Fine Arts Section, no. 25 (Silver Medal).
Paris Exhibition, 1901, (Gold Medal).

This is arguably Brett's final tour de force. Much admired by fellow artists when exhibited at the Royal Academy of 1893, it earned an Honourable Mention and favourable reviews when shown at the Paris Salon of 1894. Only last year, when it was included in John Brett: A Pre-Raphaelite on the Shores of Wales in Cardiff, it was considered the star of the show.

The composition recalls Britannia's Realm, exhibited at the Royal Academy of 1880, no. 387, and bought for the Tate by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest for £600 (see fig 1). The picture was considered remarkable, for as Brett's exact contemporary, the marine artist Henry Moore noted in his diary, on 16 May 1857, some twenty years earlier: 'There is one thing respecting the sea I never saw truly given in a painting - viz, its size and extent as seen from high cliffs - it is truly wonderful'. In Britannia's Realm Brett made good the deficiency, and he repeated the high viewpoint in Pearly Summer.

Of the earlier picture the Art Journal concluded: 'Dark clouds, partially obscuring the piled-up cumuli, betoken to our uninitiated eye a change of weather, but Mr Brett at once explains that it is merely a local disturbance, common in the afternoon, and will quickly pass away, and he speaks with such authority that we at once defer to his better knowledge'. In Pearly Summer, Brett again betrays his interest in climatic conditions, indicating an enthusiasm for scientific matters that led him to build an astronomical observatory on the roof of his house in Putney. In the present picture he treats sea and sky with a greater degree of subtlety than is found in the Tate painting, and eloquently conveys the heat and langour of a cloudy summer afternoon. Torpor is reflected in the limp sails of the vessels to the right but Brett includes in the middle distance the added interest of more discernible human activity. These were men fishing for pilchards, an activity which involved two craft, one slightly larger than the other, between which huge seine nets were drawn. One of them bears the registration 'PZ' for Penzance, far from Cardigan Bay where this picture was painted. David Jenkins has pointed out that, although the sky and seascape were taken from a sketch executed from the cliffs near Aperporth in the summer of 1891, the vessels in the picture are an agglomeration of scenes witnessed over a period of some twenty years, recorded by Brett in sketchbooks from his tours around the British Isles. The towing incident in the centre of the picture for instance was taken from a pencil drawing of a steam paddle tug, and two sailing vessels, which he had made twenty-four years earlier (see fig. 2). The drawing, from the artist's sketchbook, no. 23 (now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich), is dated July 3 /67, and was executed on board the yacht Victoria, then sailing off Little Cambrae Island in the outer approaches to the Firth of Clyde. For Pearly Summer the tug was re-named Rattler, after a tug then working out of Cardiff, while the smack was re-named Mary Jane, after a vessel then registered at Aperporth, which Brett would have seen carrying limestone and building materials along the Bristol Channel. When exhibited at the Royal Academy the following lines were appended, in order to explain the nautical manoeuvres taking place in the picture:

'Skipper of smack. 'Stand by to cast off!'
'Master of tug: 'Ease her!'
'Cox of shore boat: 'Way enough, mates; she'll just fetch us'.

An entry in Brett's Studio Log Book for 14 August 1892 explains the subject matter, and also indicates that it took him no more than two weeks to complete the painting: 'On 1st August I began another 7 foot picture of an opposite sort of subject. "Pearly Summer" from a sketch off the cliffs at Aberporth dated 27 July 91. It went very well and without alteration during the first week. Then I had to introduce more subject, and so put in the towing incident "stand by to cast off etc.". It was practically finished yesterday and I have a favourable opinion of it. I doubt whether it can be better done'.

Aberporth is in Dyfed, and the sketch from which the picture was taken was executed from the cliffs at Dôl-wen near Tresaith. (Measuring 10 x 19 in. it was sold at Sotheby's London, 10 December 1989, lot 27, £3,080). Brett's diary of 14 August 1892, mournfully records 'Having no income we could not travel this year, so had to stay at home and try to spend as little as possible of our hard earned savings ...'. The summer was spent working sketches executed on previous trips into finished pictures. The entry is a telling reminder of the sudden and surprising reversal in fortune for Brett: even the present painting was still in his possession at the time of his death, despite having been widely exhibited in Britain and on the Continent.

Brett first visited Wales in 1866, and such was his love of the country that he returned frequently thereafter. At the height of his popularity in the 1880s he was rich enough to hire a yacht, the Viking, in which he and his large family spent several summers, undertaking one memorable tour along the Welsh coast in the summer of 1883. During the last decade of his life, however, few of his pictures sold, and he was obliged to live off capital. It was a disappointing end to a career which had witnessed some remarkable peaks. Praised by Ruskin as 'one of my keenest minded friends', Brett made his name at the Royal Academy of 1858 with a work entitled The Stonebreaker, (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) in which the arduous task of the young boy, breaking flints, was contrasted with the beauty of Brett's native landscape. Ruskin thought that 'in some points of precision it goes beyond anything that the pre-Raphaelites have done yet' and concluded with the challenge 'If he can paint so lovely a distance from the Surrey Downs ... what would he not make of the chestnut groves of the Val d'Osta'. Brett spent the following summer with Ruskin, touring the continent, but his Val d'Osta of 1859 (private collection) confronted Ruskin with the most literal result of the approach to landscape advocated by him, and came as a disappointment to the critic who thought it 'Mirror's work, not Man's'. Brett's friendship with Ruskin gradually slackened, and from 1870 he concentrated on the depictions of the British coasts which now most frequently appear in the sale-rooms. In few of them did he approach the heights achieved in the present painting.

We are grateful to David Jenkins, Senior Curator in the Department of Industry, the National Museums & Galleries of Wales, and Christopher Gridley for their help in preparing this entry.

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