Reminiscences of an old painter: Samuel Prout by W. Collingwood, R.W.S

Among the men who made the English school of water-colour painting, the name of Samuel Prout holds a conspicuous place. To those who know his works, some personal reminiscences of the artist may be interesting. It was my privilege to enjoy his friendship during the last fourteen years of his life. In 1838, when I first knew him, he was residing at Hastings. His house was in George Street, approached by many steps up a steep garden, which has since shared the fate too common to such quiet spots—the garden being now covered by a shop. When I saw Hastings again, after many years, I looked in vain for the place where I had passed these happy hours, and which to me—and not to me only—was classic ground. Many an evening have I spent with him in his little studio, where he was always pleased to go over old times, with his sketches before him, and to help a young beginner with his valuable remarks on them, or on other men’s works or my own efforts. His early study was altogether his own, unaided by any teacher. He showed me his first attempts, when as a boy he armed himself with a copy-book, and a bottle of ink at his button-hole like a tax collector, and went out to Mount Edgecombe (for he was born and brought up at Plymouth) and drew the houses as he saw them, every tile, brick, and window, as best he could. Such were his first year’s efforts. The second showed a distinct advance. He began to feel that he could afford to leave out some of these ever-repeating details, and look for the places where they needed to be expressed, so that the rest might be understood. Out of such study grew his remarkable power of expression by a few touches, knowing what he was putting in, and knowing, too, what he was leaving out; for his art was always grounded on knowledge, not on chance ; it was unerring decision, rather than the fortuitous outcome of genius. Gradually the pencil took the place of the pen, and more picturesque subjects were chosen ; at first the rustic cottage, which afterwards led to the Gothic church, and, finally, the records he has left us of the Continental architecture of his day, much of which has since disappeared in the race for modern “improvement.”

Prout painted much in oil in his early days. He would scold me for my dirty palette, saying that when he was a young man he used, with other young men, to despise the care and cleanness of his elders ; but he had learned better since. He recommended Guardi—his transparent shadows and broad masses—as the best model on which to found the mode of work.
When Prout was young, de Loutherbourg was in his prime, and he, with two or three others, were very desirous to get a lesson from him. They ventured one day to ask him a question as to his process. The answer they got was, “When I paint big picture, I use big brush, when I paint little picture, I use little brush. I begin at the top and I go down to de bottom.” They found the only way to attain their purpose was to club together to commission him to paint them a picture, on condition that he would let them see him do it. To this he agreed. And they found that he did literally as he had said, using a brush according to the size of the picture, and beginning at the top, he finished it as he went on, to the bottom.

Prout’s manner of work grew naturally out of his early study. He habitually took in their order, form, light and shade, and colour. First a firm outline full of expression. I used to think it mannered broken more than he saw it in Nature, for the sake of picturesqueness; till once going with him to Bodiam Castle, where the masonry is still sharp, I thought I should catch him at fault there; but no, his outline was faithful to the character of the walls, without any tricks of style. His beautiful firm outline was his sketch in all his Continental tours. The moist water-colours, which have had so large a share in developing the art, were unknown in those earlier days, and the rubbing of colours was too tedious, as a rule, for outdoor work. He made a point of completing his outline and arrangement on the spot. If he wanted a foreground, he looked round for it near at hand, and fitted it in at once. His fingers were sketched after the same fashion, adding one to another in groups and then and there—his smaller books were thus crowded with completed groups ready for use. In his figures, as in other objects he sought what he thought necessary for the expression and for his picture, the attitude and costume only in their broad features. They were always well chosen, and in the right place.
In making his finished drawings, Prout began by reproducing with a reed pen what be had in his pencil sketch, completing his subject in outline and arrangement before he took another step. He then began to shade. A saucer of “British ink” was rubbed, and be firmly laid on the masses of Nature’s shade and shadow, and whatever further he needed for chiaroscuro, for he usually had a small study of this. Having thus a drawing complete in black and white, he proceeded to the colour, beginning with the more quiet tertiary tints, till his picture had a sober glow, and reserving to the last his bits of positive colour, each led from its chief mass through the picture in smaller quantity, till all was lit up with their brightness.
The above applies specially to his architectural drawings, by which he is best known ; for he used to say “he must have been born under a stone wall.” But he was very fond of boats and old shipping. He made many fine drawings of the grand old hulks which once were “the wooden walls of old England,” before iron became her strength. He used the same manner in these, so far as it suited them ; but whatever he did was systematic and precise. He invested with largeness and dignity whatever he touched. He liked, as he said, to hug the stones, and always preferred a low horizon, sitting as near the ground as possible.
He was very shy of body-colour, and with good reason. “Chinese white ” had been but recently introduced. Indeed, it was unknown in his earlier time ; and, even now, Faraday’s testimony to its permanence had hardly yet obtained credence. Prout’s first folio work of Continental Architecture had appeared before the printing of tints in lithography was known, and the edition was seriously injured by the discoloration of the white which was used on the grey paper. One day, looking at a drawing of William Hunt, who used body-colour without stint, he mid, “Take care, Hunt ; take care, Prout!” He produced a second folio work, printed with a tint, Besides this, he published a very beautiful characteristic volume of “Interiors and Exteriors,” and one on “Composition and Light and Shade,” with lithographic illustrations. In earlier days he had done much with soft-ground etching, as well as some lithographic drawing-books. The earlier illustrations in the “Landscape Annual” were his. But I do not attempt here to catalogue his works. Looking at a drawing of mine, he suggested the need of light in a certain part. When I objected that no light could be there, he told me how once he was drawing the porch of Chartres Cathedral, the ceiling of which was rich with sculpture, and he sat wishing he could but see it, when suddenly a reflection of sunshine from a pool in the street shot up into the very place. He clapped his hands, and said he never again would be at a loss for a light.
He loved simplicity of line and form. Looking at one of his sketches, of which I remarked on the long unbroken line, he said, ” Yes ; Nash would break that up with flags hanging out. I cannot. It is not my feeling.” His maxim was, “Sacrifice small things to great, and matter of fact to the rendering of the idea.” Whatever he drew, he looked out for and gave us the important facts, spending his time on the architectural features of an old wall rather than on its ruin ; calling attention to the form and beauty of the window, and not caring so much for the fractures of the stone. Hence the breadth, the largeness, and simplicity which characterised his works.
He was personally much esteemed by the artists of his time. On one occasion he was balloted for (and, if I remember right, successfully) as an Associate of the Royal Academy. But it was in the days when no member of another society of artists was eligible for that body. And when one suggested that Mr. Samuel Prout was a member of the Water-Colour Society, a letter was sent to Mr. Copley Fielding, the President, for official information on that point ; and on receiving his reply, the election was declared void.
During my stay at Hastings we sometimes went out sketching together. He was very fond of the place. The fish-market and the boats were favourite subjects. He was most kind and encouraging to me, then only a beginner. One day I received a note from him saying “he had mentioned my name to a lady ‘My lady,’ he thought–who had applied to him about teaching her children.” He advised me ” not to be too proud” to teach, or to accept this engagement. I was only too proud to get a pupil ; and this turned out to be a Ducal family. It was one of the happiest engagements that ever fell to my lot.
Prout was a man of genuine piety, which told upon his life. He “uttered nothing base.” There was a playful humour in his conversation, and more strikingly so in his letters ; but it was always graceful.
In his earlier years he did much in the way of teaching. From what I knew of his power of communicating and making his subject interesting, combined with his methodical manner, his instructions could not but have been most valuable. When I first became acquainted with him, in 1838, this had been discontinued, and though he returned to London for a few years before his death on February 10th 1852, he did not resume the practice. His last residence was in De Crespigny Terrace, Denmark Hill. His health had never been strong. More than that, he had been a great sufferer.
He was content with modest prices, and would say, “Don’t be too fond of keeping your works by you ; let them go; you can make more” After his death his drawings were bought for ten times as much as he got for them. Such has been the fate of many men of his day, and many others. When too late for them to benefit by their works, posterity has learned their worth. But he left behind inheritance of ” a good name,” which “is be chosen than great riches.”

The Magazine of Art Illustrated 1898 pg. 588-590

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