Clarkson Stanfield’s Verrès

Last year marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the appearance of Clarkson Stanfield’s watercolour of Verrès at Sotheby’s in London (10 July 1997, lot 138). At the preview it struck me as one of the outstanding items in the room, and I heartily recommended its purchase. Now the owners feel that it is time for it to find a new home, so it seems opportune to give it a place in the pages of

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield (1793-1867)
Verrès, Val d’Aosta, Italy, c.1831
Watercolour, 230 x 320 mm, 9 x 12 ½ ins
Private Collection
Engraved by Charles Heath for The Keepsake, 1833.
Bought by the present owner at Sotheby’s, London, 10 July 1997, lot 138
Exhibited Aosta, Italy, Museo Archeologico Regionale, Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val D’Aosta, 8 July – 8 October 2000, no.69, repr.

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In 1997 Sotheby’s gave it a relatively minor billing. It was listed well down the running order, reproduced in black and white, catalogued with minimal commentary and given a tentative estimate of £2-3000. In the rooms at Bond Street, however, it looked a substantial object: rich and sonorous. I wrote ‘Absolutely lovely/ rich [and] clear’ in my copy of the catalogue and put an exclamation mark by the estimate. In substance it seemed stronger than everything else in the room apart from the top lots by John Frederic Lewis, David Roberts, and Turner. In the event buyers of those paid many thousands more.

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My interest in the watercolour was stimulated by a personal research project. The previous year I had been commissioned the Regional Government of Aosta to curate an exhibition of Turner’s tour to the Mont Blanc and Val d’Aosta region in the year 1836. I was already aware that Clarkson Stanfield had toured the area in 1824. An account of that tour was published in 1833 by his companion William Brockedon and provided the exact itinerary that Turner followed. I already knew that Turner’s view of Verrès belonging to the National Gallery of Scotland would not be available for the exhibition. It was given to them by the collector Henry Vaughan, but on the condition that it never be lent. This has the unfortunate consequence that it can never be exhibited in the context of related work unless that occurs at the gallery in Edinburgh. Stanfield’s watercolour was sufficiently impressive and relevant to fill the gap in the display. It may be that many a visitor, not reading the labels sufficiently, might easily have taken it for a Turner.

William Brockedon
Portrait of Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, 1833
Black and red chalk, 14 3/4 in. x 10 5/8 in. (375 mm x 270 mm)
National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2515(40)
NPG 2515(40); Clarkson Frederick Stanfield – Portrait Extended – National Portrait Gallery

Clarkson Stanfield was born in Sunderland in 1793, the son of an itinerant theatre actor, and after a period at sea became famous as both artist and set designer in the Covent Garden Theatres of London.  In 1824 he was already building his reputation and was especially receptive to the stimulus of touring extensively in the Alps.  In the following decade he not only established his career as a set designer, but also built a reputation as a well-travelled and talented artist whose work became widely known through the popular illustrated annuals that flourished in the later 1820s and 1830s. His watercolours were engraved on steel and printed in their thousands, and provided destination ideas for a new generation of tourists. He marked his thirtieth birthday in 1833 by sitting for his portrait drawn by his friend William Brockedon. He was just beginning to enjoy the first fruits of his success. In later years he became one of the best-known artists in Britain, and was particularly admired by Queen Victoria.

In the same year that Brockedon drew Stanfield’s portrait, the journal of their tour together was published and The Keepsake for 1833 published a superb engraving of Stanfield’s watercolour of Verrès. This was engraved by one of the leading engravers of that generation, Charles Heath. He had worked closely with Turner in the 1810s and as a result had developed an astonishing array of tonal sensitivity and luminosity. He was a pioneer of steel engraving, and enabled a whole generation of younger artists to attain Turnerian levels of atmospheric drama. As it happens, the same issue of The Keepsake included two engravings by Turner, so we may be sure that the great artist would have taken a keen interest in the upcomer’s contribution. Especially since he would straightaway have seen that the Verrès easily outpunched both his own works for tonal presence and drama.

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Verrès lies in the lower part of the Val d’Aosta, about twenty-five miles below Aosta. An important transalpine route up the valley had existed since prehistoric times and the road was rebuilt and paved to military standards by the Romans. The valley was one of the principal trade routes between Italy and northern Europe. At Aosta, two roads led forward. One to the right climbed the Great St Bernard Pass to Martigny in the Swiss Valais, and the other continued up the Val d’Aosta to Courmayeur and thence over the lower cols of Mont Blanc towards Geneva. The historical depth of its settlements is evident throughout the valley, even though most today are largely by-passed by fast-moving transit traffic.

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Brockedon had surprisingly little to say about Verrès. His only substantive comment was that the wine that he took with his lunch made him dyspeptic. Stanfield on the other hand was more sensitive to the artistic potential around him and devoted some time to storing up observations for future reference. The watercolour shows that he found a viewpoint by the bridge. The bridge was built over a vaultable narrow in the Aya torrent and perhaps some part of the structure that he saw had existed since Roman times. Murray’s Handbook for Travellers to Switzerland of 1838 says that the bridge had recently been sturdily rebuilt, but it seems from Stanfield’s watercolour that the work had not yet begun. The Aya carries meltwater down from the glacier watershed between the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa. The old bridges on the route were precious and vulnerable links on the chain and towns gathered around to protect and maintain them. Castles and monasteries drew revenue from them. All life and commerce in the area depended on them: Their towns provided shelter and sustenance and Stanfield makes that the central theme of his watercolour.

Stanfield’s exact viewpoint at Verrès was set slightly back from the bridge on the east side, looking up at the monastery and church of the Collegiale de Saint Gilles. It is a boon that the site is now occupied by a bar/ restaurant ‘The Bridge Inn Pub’. My photograph was taken from its terrace on a warm day in May 1999, enjoying a drink and something to eat. The cause of art history required it.

Clarkson Stanfield’s Verrès was one of the first Val d’Aosta subjects to be offered to the public in the rapidly expanding field of British tourist literature. It is remarkable, therefore that another version of exactly the same view at Verrès was published at exactly the same time. This was engraved by J B Allen from a drawing by another young artist, James Duffield Harding. He was four years younger than Stanfield and likewise establishing himself as an explorer-artist, making annual tours and gathering material for illustrations in the Annuals. He secured the accolade of being appointed the sole artist for two volumes of the best-selling Landscape Annual, published by Robert Jennings of Cheapside in London. The text was by Thomas Roscoe, whose lyrical style of writing proved extremely popular. The volumes for 1832 and 1833 were issued under the title of ‘The Tourist in Italy’ and the frontispiece for the second of these was Harding’s view of the bridge and Collegiate Church of Verrès.

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It is instructive to compare the two treatments. There is some difference in architectural detail, and their relative accuracies may be debated, but it is clear that they both saw the same bridge before it was rebuilt. The treatments differ completely, however, in character. Harding adopts the vignette form generally associated with a poetical or lyrical context. He softens edges and contrasts and evokes a sunlit tranquillity. Stanfield’s composition on the other hand is all edges and contrasts, and choses fitful foreground sunlight set against a vortex of storm cloud. Harding’s effect is relaxed and even enervating; Stanfield’s vital and even stern. One is Arcadian, the other Sublime. Harding’s could be almost any quiet corner of rural Italy. Stanfield’s, however, seems perfectly to capture the granite character of a Val d’Aostan town trying to protect its contents from the gigantic mountain forces all around.

Contemporary art trends seem to have forgotten the fact that artists such as Clarkson Stanfield were forging in their time the cutting-edge of contemporary consciousness. During the first half of the nineteenth century the boundaries of knowledge expanded unprecedentedly. Biblical horizons gave way to geological, natural historical to science, mechanics to engineering and horse power to steam. Geographical consciousness swelled in the eighteenth century to embrace every corner and detail of the nation, and in the nineteenth to take inventory of Europe and then the Globe. The possession of such knowledge expanded to genuine popularity. In the eighteenth century books were for the libraries of gentlemen; in the nineteenth they came within the reach of every literate soul. When Stanfield’s Verrès was published in 1833, the publishing industry was enjoying its most intense period ever of expansion, diversification, technical advance and reach. Consciousness was developing in every direction, and artists such as Stanfield were giving that expansion visual form. Their work shapes consciousness even today.

So when photographing sites in the Val d’Aosta in 1999 it was pleasing to discover at the southern entrance to the old town that the municipality had erected a display board explaining in four languages the historical significance of the place. Clarkson Stanfield’s Verrès features as its key image. I have not seen it since, but am gratified to see on Google Earth that the signboard remained, at least as late as July 2019. It would be good to hear that it is still there. It seems an important acknowledgement of Stanfield’s role in first familiarising us with Verrès in particular, but also more generally in opening up for us a wider and richer range of possibilities in the world.

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