You may have noticed the elegant watercolour in our events calendar. It is small and cropped to fit our calendar pages, but it is worth to have a more careful look. Zsuzsanna Reed Papp, Marketing & Events Officer, looks at Paul Sandby’s ‘Laterna Magica’

Although the painting is not in the Gallery’s collection, I feel that a short tribute is in order to Paul Sandby and his rendering of a magic lantern show, on the occasion of our successful Light Night event here at the Gallery.


Paul Sandby (c.1730-1809): The Laterna Magica, 1760, Watercolor and body color over pen and ink, 37 x 53.6cm (British Museum, London).

Paul Sandby was an English topographical watercolorist and graphic artist. He and his brother Thomas (1721-1798) trained at the Military Drawing Office of the Tower of London and were engaged as draughtsmen on the survey of the Highlands of Scotland after the rebellion of 1745. Paul went to live with his brother at Windsor Park, where Thomas held the position of Deputy Ranger (they did many views of Windsor and its environment, and the Royal Library at Windsor Castle has an outstanding Standby collection).

In his later work, Sandby often used body-color: watercolour, which is mixed with white pigment to make it opaque. He also sometimes painted in oils and he was the first professional artist in England to publish aquatints (1775), which was a novel etching technique at the time. He was also a founder member of the Royal Academy and his brother was its first Professor of Architecture.

This is all very ‘Establishment’ so far. However, Sandby’s career was a tad bit more exciting than one would assume from his rolling landscapes and official biography. When Sandby was young, in his early twenties, he was angry. Very angry. The target of his discontent was the great old man of British art, William Hogarth, who had just published his aesthetic treatise, The Analysis of Beauty. Surely, a work on such a subject is bound to be ambitious and not a little self-congratulatory, but did he really deserve Sandby’s bitter attacks?

Sandby, equally angered by the master’s pretensions as an art theorist and his retrograde attitudes towards opening a new academy for artists, responded to Hogarth’s work with The Analysis of Deformity or, A New Dunciad, a series of eight etchings (1753-54). He thought Hogarth’s arguments had been plagiarised and his techniques were useless. Hogarth’s vanity, ‘the Author run Mad’, as Sandby calls him, can be humbled and destroyed. Sandby’s images are offensive and disturbing to an extent that makes one wonder how he ever thought that he can effectively caricature Hogarth’s egomaniac delusions of grandeur with works that border on insanity themselves.

Sandby’s fascination with modern technology and the magic lantern is obvious. Besides his later watercolour pictured above, one of the most well-known images of the Deformity series is ‘The Magic Lantern’, an etching portraying Hogarth as a lantern with the light beaming out of his open mouth. This image, together with the rest of the series, is crammed with horribly deformed bodies, and a surprisingly varied range of bodily excretions and vapours. The vile muck and anger rendered in Sandby’s fine and delicate draughtsmanship is profoundly unsettling. It is no less disturbing to place the wicked satirical series next to the rest of his oeuvre; the morbid creations of his Mr Hyde next to the pastel pastures, precise vanishing points, sharp shadows and obediently undulating countryside painted by his gentle Dr Jekyll. These actually vastly outnumber his frantic satires aimed at contemporary art scene drama and images depicting the life of the lower classes.

Digging even deeper, it is perhaps surprising to find that his well-mannered landscapes are, in fact, rather intriguing pieces of art. Contemporary master Henry Fuseli (whose ‘Mistress Page’ in the University Art Collection never fails to give me the creeps), called landscape art “little more than topography” and “a kind of map-work”. Sandby, indeed a trained topographer and mapmaker, worked in a genre, commonly seen as unimaginative – back then, just as now. But let’s just stop here a minute and look closer. There are plenty of rather ingenious, imaginative aspects of Sandby’s art, visions of a fertile mind neatly packed into the tight frames and precision demanded by the genre.

For one, it required an immensely good eye for perspective, proportions and coherence, and a fair bit of visual imagination, for a topographer at the time to piece together the type of surveys of vast swathes of landscape that Sandby produced. Remember: before the age of the balloon, no artist could look with a true bird’s eye. Then, there are the precisely and pleasantly rendered natural shapes, mountains and hills, the clean lines of buildings, and elegantly dressed figures placed amidst them. What is more admirable than taming the beast within? Sandby’s perhaps biggest achievement is creating a sane, measured and ordered universe – harmony even. His later (ironically quite Hogarthesque) London Cries, depicting everyday scenes of urban life, retain his interest social criticism and penchant for satire, but still manage to look sane. It is the mad vitriolic scenes of The Analysis of Deformity that give a good glimpse into the mind that eventually became eponymous with disciplined form, clear air, and sober subjects. The malicious satirist turned to parkland, pasture and industrious industry.

The ‘Laterna Magica’ (above), can be seen as hovering between Sandby’s two worlds. The superb delivery, refined lines, soft palette and the appreciation of architectural space are familiar from Sandby’s topographical art. But the figures and thinly-veiled symbolism have something in common with Sandby’s frenzied world of satire and caricature.

The mapmaker’s precision creates an air of scientific demonstration, as well as an artistic experiment with colour: Sandby was clearly intrigued how light (or its absence) affects our perception of colour. In the image of the darkened drawing room lit by battle scenes projected through a magic lantern, Sandby contrasts the bright colours of the slide with the muted reds and blues of the clothes. Subtle references to the age and his preoccupation with modern science are witnessed to by the pile of books before the canvas, one with the name of Newton, which one may frequently encounter in paintings of the period. A dismayed man holding a candle and a hefty tome of science is hurriedly leaving the scene. It is not a coincidence that one can see paintings peeping out from under the makeshift projection screen: the painter of the ‘real world’ had an acute sense of anticipation of the fact that photography would ultimately come to compete with painting. The expression on the faces of the mixed audience, ranging from unadulterated entertainment to shock and concern, is Sandby’s puzzle for the viewer: are they responding to the bloody battle scene or the magic of science bringing it to their affluent drawing room?

On 5 October, the Gallery celebrated Light Night with an homage to the pioneers of photography: Andrew Gill’s technical wizardry took our visitors to the hey-day of the magic lantern through animated performances, while Dr Claire Jones and Liz Stainforth demonstrated the technical background and scientific applications of the magical device. Outside the Gallery, our Education Officer Claire Evans invited all lightnighters for some animation-projection fun with the help of another blast from (a more recent) past: overhead projectors and acetates.

Sources include the Royal Academy of Arts catalogue of a touring Paul Sandby exhibition in 2010, as well as reviews published in The Independent and The Telegraph.

The image is reproduced with the permission of the British Museum.