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John Warwick Smith, 1749–1831, British

Isola Madre, Lago Maggiore

ca. 1781
Watercolor over graphite on medium, moderately textured, cream laid paper, laid down on original mount
12 3/16 x 17 1/2 inches (31 x 44.5 cm) and 16 3/4 x 22 1/4 inches (42.5 x 56.5 cm)

Inscribed in graphite, lower center: "Isola Madre Lago di Maggiore Lago [...]"; in graphite, lower right: "D25761"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
buildings | clouds | fog | island | lake | landscape | mountain
Associated Places:
Italy | Lago Maggiore
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IIIF Manifest:

John "Warwick" Smith was born in Irthington, Cumbria, far removed from the nation's art capital of London. But by a stroke of fortune, Smith's father happened to garden for a Mrs.Appleby, the sister of Captain John Gilpin. The captain's two, more famous sons were the Rev. William Gilpin and Sawrey Gilpin (1733-1807), theorist of the picturesque and animal painter, respectively. The connection was decisive for the young artist. Smith was placed under Sawrey Gilpin's tutelage at a time when the latter was a prominent figure in the art world. In 1775 Sawrey introduced Smith to George Greville, and Earl of Warwick, who offered to pay his passage to Italy, supporting his studies there until 1781. There Smith joined the same group of expatriate British artists as William Pars (cat. no. 11), Francis Towne (cat. no. 10), and Thomas Jones (1742-1803). Smith returned home in the company of Towne, and the two artists paused on their journey to sketch the landscapes of northern Italy and Switzerland. Isola Madre, Lago Maggiore has been identified as one of the fruits of his homeward journey, and from the dates on some of Towne's watercolors we know they had reached the area by August 1781. Smith probably made the watercolor itself from sketches back in England, where he settled in Warwick - hence his sobriquet - and presented his patron with a series of large-scale watercolors, which were kept in a portfolio in the earl's library at Warwick Castle. As its name suggests, Lago Maggiore is the largest of the northern Italian lakes, stretching across the border into neighboring Switzerland. Isola Madre is one of four islands on the lake, dominated by a great sixteenth-century palazzo with celebrated gardens. When it came to painting the landscape, Smith produced a design of striking simplicity, dividing the sky, land, and lake into a composition of balanced horizontal bands. This suggests a debt to Towne, who also tended to abstract complex scenery into simple geometric patterns. But, with the exception of a few pencil lines to locate the island and the background peaks, Smith dispensed with Towne's detailed under. drawing and pen and ink line. His entire composition rests on careful control of tone, using subtle gray and blue washes to suggest light, atmosphere, and depth. The time of day is presumably early morning, with a dawn mist spreading over the water. To catch these atmospheric conditions, Smith exploited the full potential of watercolor's translucency by allowing the whiteness of the paper to shine through, giving the entire scene a striking luminosity. Since watercolor is applied from light to dark, highlights must come before shadows. In this case, Smith took care to preserve the intensity of his highlights, such as those on the closest mountain, with only the faintest of gray washes on top of the paper. He left a small band of entirely untouched white paper between the mountains and the water to suggest mist rising off the lake's surface. Depth is achieved by introducing the darkest blues into the immediate foreground and lightening them as they fade into the distance. Although the rim of Lago Maggiore is wooded, Smith has captured the instability of color, draining the rim's green hues to suggest the experience of seeing the mountains through early-morning light. What gives this composition its force is the slightly asymmetrical placement of the island itself where Smith introduced local color in the green trees and the hint of russet for the tiled roofs of the palazzo. The sense of space between the island and the mountains is created entirely by playing this local color off against the perceived color of the mountains, demonstrating how far artists like Smith were moving away from the limitations of the stained-drawing technique by the end of the century.

Matthew Hargraves

Hargraves, Matthew, and Scott Wilcox. Great British Watercolors: from the Paul Mellon collection. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 2008, pp. 42-43, no. 15

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-06-09 - 2008-08-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (The State Hermitage Museum, 2007-10-23 - 2008-01-13) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2007-07-11 - 2007-09-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Edward Lear and the Art of Travel (Yale Center for British Art, 2000-09-20 - 2001-01-14) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Gentle, Rural and Sublime - English Landscape Paintings and Watercolors, 1750-1850 (Denver Art Museum, 1993-12-11 - 1994-02-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

English Landscape (Paul Mellon Collection) 1630-1850 (Yale Center for British Art, 1977-04-19 - 1977-07-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Katharine Baetjer, Glorious nature, British landscape painting, 1750-1850 , Zwemmer publisher, London, 1993, pp. 148-149, no. 33, ND1354.4 B34 1993 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Graham Reynolds, English Landscape 1630-1850, Apollo, vol.105, no. 182, April 1977, pp. 41-42, no. 64, pl. XI, N1 A54 105:2 + (YCBA) Another copy of this article may be found in a separately bound and catalogued copy of this issue located on the Mellon Shelf [call number : N5220 M552 A7 1977 + (YCBA)] [YCBA]

Simon Schama, The Yale Centre for British Art, TLS, the Times Literary Supplement, Issue no. 3923, May 20, 1977, p. 620, Film S748 (SML) Also avaiable online in TLS Historical Archive (ORBIS) [ORBIS]

Scott Wilcox, Edward Lear and the art of travel, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2000, pp. 138-139, no. 157, NJ18 L455 W55 2000 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Yale Center for British Art, Great British watercolors : from the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007, pp. 42-44, no. 15, ND1928 .Y35 2007 (LC)+ Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

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