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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Finest Watercolor of a Parrot Signed and dated by Sarah Stone, the 18th century natural history artist comissioned to paint the contents of Sir Ashton Lever’s museum in London

Sarah Stone (c. 1760 - 1844)
Green Parrot
Watercolor and gouache heigtened with gum arabic on paper
11 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches
Framed:  19 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches
Signed and dated lower left: Sarah Stone 1782
Signed and dated verso: Sarah Stone 1782
$125,000

The name Sarah Stone is synonymous with the Lever Museum (also known as the Leicester House), a major cultural phenomenon of 18th century London. Its owner, Sir Ashton Lever, employed this fine female artist to record specimens and ethnographic material brought back by British expeditions to Australia, the Americas, Africa and the Far East in the 1780s and 1790s- perhaps most significant being Captain Cook on his round-the-world voyages. Stone's meticulous paintings provide a unique record of the discoveries made by sailors and naturalists on board British survey ships as well as in the new colonies.  They were also incredibly beautiful and technically accurate.

The importance of Sarah's drawings lies in the fact that she not only recorded so many new scientific discoveries for the first time, but she also recorded them while they were still under one roof. Throughout her nearly 30 year career, she was extremely prolific, painting over 1,000 watercolors of mounted birds, mammals, fishes, insects, reptiles, shells, minerals as well as ethnographical artifacts. Consciously she was known to sign and date many of her watercolors.

Lever either purchased or was gifted the first specimens ever recorded or known to science in several fields. Unfortunately, his museum no longer exists, as its contents were dispersed in 1806. Many of its specimens have been lost forever. As a result, Stone's paintings not only act as aesthetically beautiful works of art, but also provide an important record of specimens used by naturalists in the age of Linnaeus, some of which are now extinct.

Only about 900 of her paintings exist today, however, they were often requested to be engraved for illustrations in natural history publications. By 1789 she was well known in London both to the public who visited the famous Lever museum as well as to the experts of the day who were interested in natural history and everything to do with the voyages of Captain Cook.

While she painted all of her subjects with a keen eye, it was thought that her drawings of birds in particular showed a considerable amount of technical skill. She was self taught and her talents were clearly innate, however, her father was a fan painter, working somewhat in the style of the French Rococo artist Antoine Watteau.  Fan painting requires fine and accurate coloring skills, and this intricate and delicate job was often done by map colorists. As a child, Sarah learned to use local and even household ingredients for her pigments - brickdust, or the juice of leaves or flower petals. Later in life, this understanding helped her select the colors with which she painted, prompting her to work with colors that she considered permanent, such as Chinese white, ivory black, burnt sienna, Vandyke brown, yellow ochre, chrome lemon and yellow, light orange cadmium, vermilion, carmine, madder lake, Veronese green, sap green, cobalt, ultramarine and Prussian blue. She also employed gum Arabic to gouache powders, and she learned to mix watercolor paint, and to add white for opacity and highlights. Her solid techniques only enhanced the appearance of her artwork. 

Stone diligently recorded and was highly faithful (to use an 18th century term) when she portrayed her subjects, painstakingly documenting the models in front of her. Had she employed more artistic license some of her forms would have come across more naturalistic, but she stayed true to how the taxidermists arranged the subjects. Her works, therefore, can also be read as a historical analysis of 18th century taxidermic practices. When Sarah provided tree branches as part of her backgrounds, as we see in this fine example, they were distinctive and one of the features by which her paintings may be recognized. Nearly always they were depicted as pale grey or silver, like a silver birch bark, with a little lichen very delicately traced.

It is clear to see how influential Sarah Stone is to the history of natural history illustration and the tremendous skill that was required to paint such diverse subjects, both zoological and ethnographical.  This example is an extraordinary opportunity for a collector to own an original work by this esteemed artist. What we can clearly admire about this piece is the delicacy of the brushwork, and her touch when it comes to color. The work has a brilliance and sheen that hardly reads as if it dates from the 18th century.

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