‘From a sketch made last summer’: Thomas Baker’s use of sketches in his landscape oil paintings.

Last time I looked at some oil paintings that my father has added this year to his catalogue of Thomas Baker of Leamington (1809–1864). The impetus for my father’s work was his response to Baker’s oil paintings and the unique record that Baker left of them in his diaries, the Memoranda of pictures painted by me.

Baker was also a skilled draughtsman and an accomplished watercolourist. The broad handling and assured drawing of Baker’s mature sketches was present in his earliest work. This sketch of cows with a horse and a donkey dated 1832 is outstanding (private collection). The execution is brisk and modern, the animals are superbly observed and the unfaded pigments seem to be straight from the brush.

Baker doesn’t list works on paper in his diaries but he mentions preliminary sketches where relevant and in some cases these still survive. This early oil painting listed as no.108 in the diaries was painted April 19th 1837 (private collection). It is described as ‘From a sketch made last summer near the village of Honingham’ (all diary images courtesy of Birmingham Museums and Galleries).

The sketch also survives, signed and dated 1836 (private collection).

​Several things jump out about this drawing. I wrote before about how realistic Baker is as a landscapist. The watercolour documents a moment in time exactly. We are in this field seeing it through Baker’s eyes. The front two cows are lazily aware of him. Thanks to Baker’s note in the diaries we can be confident this is a life sketch done on the spot. Baker has recorded the foreground tree in detail but the rest of the landscape is free and suggestive, leading your eye over the hills to the far horizon.

The differences between the watercolour and the oil are indicative of Baker’s approach to landscape at this date. He moves the cattle further back so they’re no longer engaging directly with the viewer. He changes the time of day. In the drawing it is around noon on a pleasant cloudy summer day. In the oil there’s a golden early morning light. The sketch is documentary. The oil is poetry. And with this change in mood comes a sharply different palette. This is the landscape tradition that Baker grew up in, and you can see it in Turner or in the work of Joseph Vincent Barber under whom Baker studied at the Academy on Great Charles Street in Birmingham. In Baker’s later work he diverges from this tradition by giving his oils the same documentary feel as the drawings from life.

In his note for the Honingham landscape no.108 Baker says that ‘Outremer Guimet is used in the sky, and also, considerably in the Landscape.’ This detail illustrates how valuable his diaries are as an art historical resource. Outremer Guimet was a synthetic ultramarine invented by the chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet. He was married to the painter Zélie Bidauld who needed a cheaper alternative to ultramarine blue, which – being made of lapis lazuli quarried from a single mine in Afghanistan – was more expensive than gold. Despite every attempt to find a cheaper alternative nothing of equal quality had yet been invented. Guimet launched his Outremer Guimet in 1828. Baker records that he used it three times between April and May 1837, on this painting and on nos.107 and 109. He does not subsequently refer to Outremer Guimet among the pigments he used, although in the entry for no.107 he also calls it ‘French blue’ which he continues to use until throughout his career. Documentary evidence of the specific pigments used by a painter in a specific work is always rare, and to have it in such detail from 1829 to 1864 is unique.

The drawing of haymaking inscribed Leamington is freely drawn and well observed. It has Baker’s characteristic depth and the view to the horizon is instantly recognisable as Warwickshire. It is signed and dated August 1857. Baker’s drawings are increasingly signed and dated, often giving their location. Baker’s drawings were a crucial source in his paintings and as models fir his pupils and the careful date and signature suggests Baker knew they had value in themselves.

This sketch was the source for two oil paintings, no.590 Wheatfield near Leamington painted on canvas in the following month and sold to the dealer-collector Henry Wallis (image Haynes Fine Art, Cotswolds and London)

and no.604 a smaller copy on millboard (private collection), painted in January 1858 and sold in March that year to Mr J. Gilbert ‘thrown in to a bargain of 42£’. J. Gilbert of Liverpool is a frequent buyer of Baker’s work in the late 1850s. In this entry the subject is identified as Wheatflield on Oldham’s Farm.

No.615 At Hampton Lucy was painted April 1858 (image courtesy of Sotheby’s London) and sold in June that year for 5 shillings to Mr W. Holmes. Holmes also bought no.612 in 1858, no.645 in 1859 and nos.695 and 698 in 1860.

Each version includes the smoke rising almost vertically from the chimney of house on the right. This observation is crucial in establishing the feel of the scene, haymaking on a hot still day in August. Baker was not a figure painter and the figures in his oil paintings can be rather wooden. Looking at the haymakers in the Wheatfield drawing it’s interesting to see that the figures in Baker’s sketches may have similar faults of proportion but they are lively and keenly observed. He sees them and he brings them to life. They have weight and movement. They even have personality. And you’re can tell they’re sweating.

It is also worth noting that the atmosphere of the finished oils follows the naturalism of the original sketch. Real life is poetry enough.

Two months later, in October 1857, Baker made this sketch of carters watering their horses at Hampton Lucy.

This is Baker’s loosest, sketchiest manner. This technique, like the lively observation of the carters watering their horses, is a sure sign that Baker drew this on the spot from life. The curious will wonder how it is so green still in October but Weather In History gives ‘Persistently warm weather from August to October’ that year.

Baker used this sketch with its echoes of Gainsborough and Constable for a painting in April 1858. At Hampton Lucy sold in June that year to W. Holmes for 5 shillings (image courtesy of Sotheby’s London).

Again the oil follows the drawing exactly in composition and mood, even to the slight touch of Autumn in a couple of the trees to the left. The left hand figure sits more upright and looks toward us. It’s an interesting touch that locks our focus on a very accomplished little group in which cart, horses, tack and riders have been painted with loving care. The white horse and its reflection alongside the reflection of the house are outstanding.

Comparing sketch and oil shows how Baker’s watercolour drawings function as a shorthand and their marks can be translated into the finished oil. Each element in the watercolour translates into the finished oil. Only the figures have been slightly adjusted, in mood. They sit more upright and are more aware. Like their horses the slumped figures in the sketch are glad of the rest for a moment and lost in their own thoughts. Baker captures this feeling exactly in the drawing, even though they rare barely painted at all and their upper bodies are defined by the unpainted white of the paper.

This sketch showing a distant view of Warwick signed and dated 1862 again conveys depth and atmosphere – and architectural detail in the recognisable view of St Mary’s Church tower – deftly and economically (image Carvajal Auctions, Antibes).

This sketch was the source for no.886 in Baker’s diaries, Distant view of Warwick from Wedgnock-park-farm painted in April 1864 on a small mahogany panel, using copal varnish and turpentine. We do not know if this painting survives, nor is there any record in the diaries of it being sold. Sadly Baker died suddenly in August that year. The last painting in his diaries, no.901 Oak Tree on the Banbury-road; near Oakley-wood was painted in July 1864.

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Two watercolour studies of donkeys may relate to ideas for this painting. The top one is dated July 1864, and the bottom one initialled an dated 1864.

The right-hand donkey in the drawing above appears in this small panel dated 1863 (Watford Museum). It is unusual for one of Baker’s watercolour sketches to follow an oil rather than the other way round. This painting is one of a handful not mentioned in Baker’s diaries. It’s a beautiful painting to end on and undoubtedly one of his best.

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