Richard Wilson and the Grand Tour

A charming little exhibition currently on show at Dulwich Picture Gallery displays the Italian part of the collection of Sir Brinsley Ford, one of the leading dilettanti of his generation. It pays tribute to the three main Ford collectors: Benjamin Booth (1732-1807), his grandson, Richard Ford (1796-1858), and Sir Brinsley himself (1900-99).

Each was deeply imbued with the spirit of the Grand Tour: Booth made an unsurpassed collection of paintings, including the landscapes by Richard Wilson and two fine Panini capriccios in this show; Richard Ford littered every page of his famous Handbook for Travellers in Spain with quotes from the Classics, although he receives only an honorary mention here as his primary passion was Spain; Sir Brinsley was a leading collector and authority on the Grand Tour, and his Classical taste is reflected here in paintings ranging from two fine Italian Baroque religious works to a pair of exquisite Ingres drawings executed in Florence.

This exhibition is, above all, a real chance to understand the full range and ability of Richard Wilson. The 16 works on display show how deeply he was inspired by his years in Rome (1752-57) and by the beauty of the Roman Campagna, described by his follower Thomas Jones as a ‘Magick land’. So deep was this affection that Wilson was reputed to have been able to quote Horace in Latin as he was composing his Arcadian landscapes. On his return to Britain, he imbued images of his native land with the same all-pervading Classical light.

It is often difficult to work out whether a landscape is a British or an Italian view. One of Sir Brinsley’s favourite anecdotes was how Lord Clark used to begin his lecture on the Grand Tour by showing a Wilson view of a ruined arch, describing it as showing the grounds of the Villa Borghese. It was actually a depiction of Kew gardens. The Olympian Lord Clark may not have appreciated the joke, but Sir Brinsley was vastly amused by his mistake, which demonstrated the extent to which an Italianate light permeates Wilson’s best work.

There could be no more perfect location to display the Ford collection than the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The feeling of Classical harmony engendered by the paintings harmonises perfectly with the building itself, a masterpiece by Sir John Soane, who drew so much of his inspiration from his Grand Tour to Italy in 1778-80.

The Gallery’s collection is a wonderful example of Georgian taste of about 1800, encompassing Classical works by Poussin, Claude, masters of the Italian Baroque, English portraits from Van Dyck through Gainsborough to Lawrence, and Flemish and Dutch paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, and their followers.

This is a chance to put Richard Wilson back where he belongs, at the forefront of British landscape painting. John Ruskin acknowledged his status, stating, in typically magisterial fashion, that he ‘paints in a manly way and occasionally reaches exquisite tones of colour’.

In his Modern Painters, Ruskin develops the theme that the ‘Welsh Claude’, as Wilson was known, exerted a key influence on Turner, whom Ruskin regarded as the greatest of landscape painters. But Wilson’s fame is due for a revival. Some years ago, when leading a tour to Tivoli, I spotted an artist painting the famous view of the Falls, which had inspired so many artists on the Grand Tour. Turning to a member of the group, I remarked: ‘There’s Richard Wilson.’ The lady, somewhat bemused, replied: ?But I didn’t realise there was anyone called Richard Wilson on our tour.’

This review provides an opportunity to express my immense gratitude to Sir Brinsley Ford, who so gene-rously gave me free access to his wonderful archive on British Grand Tourists in Italy, for which this exhibition is the visual complement.

Charles Fitzroy is the author of Italy: A Grand Tour for the Modern Traveller (1991). ‘Highlights from the Brinsley Ford Collection: Richard Wilson and the Grand Tour’ is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21 until February 11, 2007 (020â?”8693 5254).