CLARKSON STANFIELD R.A.
1793 – 1867 British
Calm at Vietri in the Gulf of Salerno
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated 1857
Frame size: 53¼ x 35¼ inches / 134.5 x 89.5 cm
Clarkson Stanfield was born in Sunderland, the fifth and youngest child of James Field Stanfield (1749-1824), well-known in the north-east of England as an actor and author. Clarkson inherited his artistic talent from his mother, Mary, and as a boy probably helped his father paint stage scenery, occasionally appearing as a child actor.
In 1806 he was apprenticed to an heraldic coach painter but went to sea in a collier two years later, being pressed into the Navy in London in July 1812. His artistic ability attracted attention and he helped decorate the Sheerness port-admiral’s ballroom but, failing to obtain shore employment, was invalided from the Service at the end of 1814. He then sailed as a seaman in the Indiaman Warley to China and back. Missing his ship for the next voyage, he was employed as a scenery painter at the East London Theatre, Stepney, and continued with other companies, including the Royal Coburg (now the ‘Old Vic’) where he worked with David Roberts (1796-1864) under John Thomas Serres (1759-1825). In December 1822 he moved to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where, over the next twelve years, he achieved renown as the most famous theatrical painter of his time. Particularly notable were his ‘moving dioramas’, unrolling land and seascapes, some twenty feet high. Similar exhibitions were shown outside the theatre.
Stanfield’s rise as an easel painter was contemporary with and encouraged by his scenic fame. The speed with which he worked in both areas was the source of amazement. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1820 and between 1830 and his death only failed to contribute in 1839, due to a tour. In 1830 his stormy sea-piece ‘St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall’ (now in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) attracted King William IV’s attention and the two following royal commissions are still in the Royal Collection. Stanfield’s prosperity was assured. He was elected Associate Royal Academy member in 1832 and full Academician in February 1835, when he gave up theatre work.
Working in both oil and watercolour, Stanfield’s oils reflect his scenic training in a style of picturesque realism, painted with bright colour, great clarity and glowing surface effects. John Ruskin considered Stanfield the nearest rival to J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851) as a delineator of cloud forms and compared the nautical knowledge of his marine works favourably with that of the Old Masters.
Like her uncle, Queen Victoria was a great admirer of Stanfield’s work, particularly his scenes of the sea both at the theatre and as paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy. The Queen bought several of his oils, including, in 1840, a pair of Italian scenes, ‘A view of the beach at Vietri in the Gulf of Salerno’ and ‘The Capuchin Convent at Amalfi’, for which the artist was paid £218. Both are in the Royal Collection (Nos. 652 and 653), signed and dated ‘C.Stanfield R.A./1840’ and measure 22.5 x 32 in. (57 x 81 cm.) These may have been, like others, purchased as presents for Prince Albert. The painting of Vietri was engraved by W.Miller for publication in the ‘Art Journal’ in 1859. It was loaned by the Crown to the exhibition ‘Clarkson Stanfield’ mounted by Tyne and Wear County Council Museums in 1979 (No.220), catalogue by P. van der Merwe.
The coastline at Vietri, between Amalfi and Salerno, was popular with visiting artists for its busy beaches backed by ancient fortresses and towering cliffs, all viewed in the clear Mediterranean light. Encouraged by the royal purchase, Stanfield returned to depiction of the scene with the present painting for the Academy exhibition in 1857. It has the same lucid, balanced appeal while giving prominence to close-up activity on the beach and shipping in the bay. It is substantially larger than the work in the Royal Collection.
Stanfield was a man of striking appearance, as testified by contemporary portraits, and widely liked for his simplicity and modesty. He received several artistic honours and was appointed Curator of Pictures at Greenwich Hospital in 1844. He died in Hampstead on 8 May 1867.
Provenance: Alan Russett, author.
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