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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Offering of the Day: An Exceptional Original Watercolor of a Leopard by English Artist Charles Edward Brittan

Charles Edward Brittan (1837-Plymouth 1888)
A Leopard
18 1/2 x 28 7/8 inches
Pencil, watercolor and gouache on paper
Signedlower left: C. E. Brittan
$55,000


The eighteenth century saw a burgeoning of interest in exotic animals and menageries were established across Europe.  To begin with these were mainly housed as part of royal collections and could be found in the United Provinces at the palaces of the princes of Orange, and in France at Versailles.  The expansion of trade and growing exploration of the world resulted in wild animals being captured and returned to Europe as both objects of curiosity and scientific specimens.  Artists were frequently employed to paint these prized possessions.

In England, natural history painters were primarily interested in botany.  Yet, scientists increasingly began to turn their attentions to new and exotic breeds of animal and painters, finding new sources for commissions, followed suit. Amongst the greatest exponents of the subject was the celebrated artist George Stubbs who produced exquisite depictions of wild animals. The eminent doctor William Hunter assembled a considerable collection of paintings to complement his scientific interests, particularly the study of comparative anatomy, but also because at times he was not able to acquire living specimens.  The field was also aided by the foundation of the Linnean Society in 1788, named after the creator of the now universal system of nomenclature for plants and animals. This institution expressly encouraged 'the cultivation of the Science of Natural History in all its branches.'

However, interest extended beyond scientific study to the general public at large. A Royal Menagerie was established at Buckingham Gate and members of the nobility also owned wild animals.  For example, George Stubbs is recorded as having painted Lord Shelbourne's caged lion.  In addition, a menagerie was established at Exeter Change in the Strand by Pidock, a trader in wild animals.  This proved to be exceptionally popular with the London public and the artist Jacques-Laurent Agasse painted several animals from here. British interest in natural history painting was further advanced by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, under whom the Empire grew, thus fuelling the export of live wild animals from the colonies to Britain.

Thus, these enchanting works are excellent examples of the nineteenth-century British fascination with wildlife.  Born in 1837, the year in which Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, Charles Edward Brittan was born in Truro, Cornwall.  He later moved to Plymouth where his son, who bears the same name and who was also an artist, was born in 1870. 

Brittan specialized in the painting of animals and birds, mostly in the watercolor medium.  Although works by him a scarce, they are instantly recognizable for their truth to nature.  The animal is placed within a realistic landscape and the innate characteristic of each subject is ably reproduced on paper.  These particular examples are particularly notable for their size and quality of color.

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