‘Gordale Scar’

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‘Gordale Scar’, by James Ward (1769-1859), in the permanent collection of Bradford Museums and Galleries, was painted around 1813 and is a smaller version by Ward of the same oil painting exhibited today in the Tate Gallery, London.  The Tate painting is enormous: 14 by 12 feet, whereas this version is a more modest 76 x 101 cm, painted in oil on canvas.

Gordale Scar is a bank of limestone cliff in Malhamdale, near Settle, North Yorkshire, and Ward was commissioned to paint it by a local landowner, Thomas Lister (later Lord Ribblesdale) of Gisburne Park. The larger version of painting now in the Tate was shown at the Royal Academy in 1815. The work was a part of a Romantic movement in English art at that time to present a sense of the sublime in landscape form.  To early travellers from outside the region, Gordale Scar would have appeared both awesome and magnificent. The Scar, and other similar landscape, certainly represented a challenge to artists, in terms of capturing and compressing the scale and majesty of the scene before them.

Ward did this by the sheer size of the original work and by emphasising the height of the cliffs by his dwarfing of the deer and cattle in the foreground.  The white bull, one of the semi-wild herd of cattle bred by Lord Ribblesdale at Gisburne Park, appears to act as a symbolic guardian of the Scar. It has been argued that, painted as it was in the last years of the Napoleonic wars, Ward aimed to depict the rugged and permanent nature of the English character and homeland defended by the English ‘John Bull’, in this case in animal form.

The inner face of the cliff is thrown into shadow, but the sunlight glances the front of the rockface, emphasising the darkness within, but leading the eye to beyond to the white break in the sky and giving the scene additional perspective. The sunlight on the rock face also highlights the finely-observed geological detail: the strata, breaks, lines and fissures, and the subtle shades of grey and green of the rockface. The swirling dark clouds at the top of the painting adds to a sense of the brooding power of the scene.

The Artist

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Self-portrait of the artist in later life. Image: Wikipedia.

James Ward’s childhood and adolescence were difficult years for him.  He was one of a family of five: with one older brother, William, and three sisters. His father, a wholesale fruiterer and cider merchant in London, was a heavy drinker who eventually lost the business because of his drinking habit. His mother opened a  vegetable shop to make ends meet and James, aged nine, was required to take a job washing empty bottles to contribute to the family income.

However, both he and brother, William, were natural artists, and James sketched the scenes around him at every opportunity. In his early teens became apprenticed to John Raphael Smith of Oxford Street, London, as an trainee engraver.  His brother, William, also served an apprenticeship and became a successful engraver, and James later went to work with him.

James’s brother-in-law, the artist George Morland, introduced him to oil painting, and James, discovering a talent for painting in oils, began to study the painting techniques of Rubens and Van Dyck. He also closely observed the detail in wild life and nature and began to gain a reputation for his accurate portraits of domestic and wild animals that were turned into popular engraved prints, bringing his name to wider public attention.  His reputation was secured when he was commissioned to paint he horses Marengo and Copenhagen, who belonged, respectively, to Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. In addition to landscape and animal life, his repertoire was wide, including portraits, history, religious, and allegorical studies.

He became a member of the Royal Academy, which increased his prestige and he lived well from his commissions. However, he was extravagant in his lifestyle and ran into financial problems in later life. His style of painting also fell out of favour and in 1847 he was forced to apply to the Royal Academy for financial assistance, stating that, ‘for years he had not sold a single picture’. He was granted a pension of £100, enabling him to spend his remaining years free of poverty.  He died aged 90 and is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery..

 

 

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