Dulwich Artist in Residence
Samuel Prout, 1783-1852
by Jan Piggott
One of the pleasures of living in and around Dulwich is to summon up in the imagination the historical and literary figures who frequented our streets and green spaces; truant, for a moment, from the way the world looks now. Edward Alleyn, thoughtful among his fruit trees just to the south of the Picture Gallery, long before a clutch of wholesome Wates maisonettes was put down there. At the commuter roundabout on the top of Sydenham Hill, at midnight, Lord Byron on his horse in high spirits, hat thrown up in farewell to the poet Thomas Campbell, his host, who had walked up with him from Sydenham Common. Regency swells at illicit duels in Dulwich fields, behind the stiles and hedges. At a window of the Greyhound, Leigh Hunt observing haymakers in white shirts. Samuel Palmer sketching in his ‘sweet’ meadows, noting the ’mystic glimmer’ behind the bosky hills, ‘the gate into the world of vision’. Mr Pickwick puffed up in his large garden or ‘miniature conservatory’, walking in the Village on a fine day, the poor taking their hats off to him, or ‘contemplating the pictures in the Dulwich Gallery’ - all as Dickens describes. The College’s annual garden parties at the Picture Gallery, four-in-hand carriages lined up outside, distinguished guests and the tables of tea, ices and heaped strawberries - ‘nowhere else so big’, as Henry James noted. John Ruskin, in childhood solitude, dawdling along the lane that is now the Number-Three-charged Croxted Road - with a ‘slender rivulet’ in the long grass, primroses and hawthorn buds, all recalled in his brilliant manic tirade of 1880 against the ‘ruin’ and ‘filth’ caused by the College Estate building villas there. Arthur Herman Gilkes on his stately bicycle, pedalling with extraordinary slow motion to the College Mission in Camberwell. The schoolboy Wodehouse skating on Belair pond.
In the early nineteenth century on the site of the Grove Tavern (now the stricken ‘Harvester’), at the edge of the Estate, stood a large hostelry which the celebrated and bookish Dr. Alexander Glennie from Aberdeen had leased for his small and select boys’ school. Here from 1809 to 1821 the Drawing Master was Samuel Prout (fig. 1); the artist’s account books show his salary rising from £59 in 1809 to £150 in 1815. At the recent fabulous Cotman in Normandy exhibition at the Picture Gallery there were two water-colours by Prout that were much admired: Rue Gros Horloge, Rouen and Market place in Lisieux; these were to contrast with Cotman’s designs for his Architectural Antiquities of Normandy. Yet it was Prout who established a highly successful formula for images of picturesque historic buildings in the cramped streets of continental towns, like very superior post-cards highlighted with sparkling colour, affectionately depicting intricate masonry, unrestored and often pleasantly decayed by time and weather; his reputation eclipsed Cotman’s for such views. Although Cotman was the first of the two artists to visit Normandy, Prout stole a march on him by exhibiting Normandy views at the Society of Painters in Water-Colours in Bond Street in 1820, and again in 1821 and 1822, and by publishing Picturesque Buildings of Normandy (fig. 2) with 8 lithographic plates in 1821, the year before Cotman’s monumental volume of etchings. Cotman owned works by Prout, and exhibited some of his Normandy water-colours in Norwich in 1821; they exchanged copies of their publications. Prout played a significant part in the development of lithography, drawing his pictures on the stones himself. He also had a great influence on tourism, partly through reproductive prints of his views (fig. 3), the very numerous steel-engravings such as the illustrations to his enchanting Landscape Annuals of 1830 and 1831, and from which most of his income derived. Inspired by his work John Ruskin (senior; 1785-1864), the immensely wealthy sherry merchant, took his wife and his artistic son to the continent in 1833 from the large house on Herne Hill.
At Dulwich in 1808 the water-colour painter David Cox had moved into a small cottage on the edge of the Common; born the same year as Prout, he is said to have been his friend. Dulwich with its tree clad hills above the meadows, ponds and streams was a rustic resort of artists, thanks to the slow development of the College Estate and in spite of the large villas with private grounds and the Village itself. (Even now in the purlieus of the South Circular Road a creamy harvest moon above the Dulwich woods can transport one into Palmer’s sublime world). Prout made a magnificent careful study of Edward Alleyn’s wooden windmill for a soft-ground etching of 1815 (fig. 4); the mill stood where the front lawns of the College now face Pond Cottages. It is likely that David Cox had introduced Prout to his neighbour, the good Dr. Glennie. At Glennie’s Academy the most famous pupil was Lord Byron; in 1799 at the age of eleven, and when he had only just inherited his title, he joined the school for almost three years before going on to Harrow. Perhaps Prout heard about the boy’s pranks, such as mock footpad attacks on passing strangers; perhaps he could have told us into which of the many Dulwich ponds Byron threw the brace he had been told to wear for his deformed leg. Prout lived in Stockwell at 4 Brixton Place with his wife and four young children until 1835, when he moved to Clapham Rise. He worked most steadily at his drawings and water-colours, but was often confined to his bed with a severe headache for a day or two each week - said to be the result of serious sunstroke at the age of five. ¬For his health he next spent a few intervening years in Plymouth and Hastings, but returned to South London, living at 5 De Crespigny Terrace at Denmark Hill, in 1844 during his last twelve years.
Prout came from Devon; from the West Country came metropolitan artists such as Reynolds, Lawrence and Charles Eastlake (who was taught to draw by Prout). His father kept a Plymouth mercer’s shop, and was a naval outfitter. At the Grammar School it was the headmaster, an amateur artist, who encouraged Prout and his contemporary Benjamin Robert Haydon to sketch and to paint. Mild-mannered, devout, assiduous, Prout was quite unlike the theatrical and ultimately suicidal egomaniac Haydon. Apart from a few private lessons, he had no proper education in art; initially he had great difficulty with perspective. In youth he painted a dramatic shipwreck that he witnessed with Haydon, but, born into the great era of the Romantic picturesque with its love of old abbeys and ruined castles, he was to specialise for his entire career in architecture and antiquarian subjects. The druidical monuments, stone crosses and ancient buildings of Devon and Cornwall were the subjects of his early drawing excursions; he was clearly fascinated by subjects that landscape artists might think banal without a surrounding context, such as the shapes and textures of cottages, bridges, mills, and boats.
At the age of seventeen in Plymouth he was taken on a sketching tour and given commissions for antiquarian and romantic views by John Britton (1771-1857), the prolific writer who played such a significant part in the antiquarian and architectural publications of the first half of the nineteenth century; Prout’s drawings were engraved for Britton’s series Architectural Antiquities and The Beauties of England and Wales (to which Cotman contributed two plates). Pleasing decay - so seldom tolerated today by the National Trust - he rendered with a kind of passion: time-worn stone, crumbling brick, timber frames, tiles, rotting thatch, doors, windows and shutters. He sketched standing up, with pencil and ‘stump’ (a leather or India-rubber head on a shaft, resembling a brush, for rubbing down hard lines and blending shading); his drawings he made with a reed pen in bistre or ‘Prout’s Brown’ ink, outlined and then given texture by curls, dots and dashes. Prout lodged with Britton in London for two years, and was set to make copies of water-colours by Turner, Thomas Hearne and Cotman. By 1805 he was exhibiting at the Academy.
(To be concluded in the Autumn edition)