Friday, June 05, 2015

Richmond Upon James: An Unrivalled Landscape

You may know that our fair city, RVA, is believed to be named by William Byrd II after a view of the James River from Libby Hill reminded him a view of the Thames River from a village west of London called Richmond. The curve of the James as it begins its slope down the peninsula does indeed look like the curve of the Thames, as a quick tour of Google maps will confirm. But a tour of the library, its art books and novels, might yield more interesting glimpses of our city’s namesake than you can find in Google Maps, or even by flying to Richmond upon Thames itself. Here are a few works of art depicting the view that so impressed William Byrd. And if Byrd saw England when standing over the James, perhaps you can see Virginia in these portraits of the Thames.

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted The Thames from Richmond Hill in 1788. Reynolds (1723-1792) did not paint many landscapes, but he had excellent access to the view as he lived on Richmond Hill. He was the first president of the Royal Academy in London and delivered several lectures on art still celebrated today.

J.M.W. Turner, exhibited his England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday in 1819. Turner (1775-1851) was a great admirer of Reynolds, requesting even to be buried beside him. He too lived close to the view and completed many drawings of it. Turner was recently the focus of a feature film, Mr. Turner, in which he stumbles his way through the gorgeous landscapes seen in his paintings.

In 1879, Charles Dickens, Jr., eldest son of the Charles Dickens you’ve heard of, wrote in his Dictionary of the Thames: “Nothing in the neighborhood of London is better known or more delightful than the view from Richmond Hill and Terrace, and when Sir Walter Scott described it as an unrivalled landscape, he was hardly saying too much.” Dickens was referring to a passage in Scott’s novel The Heart of Midlothian, which was published a year before Turner exhibited his painting. In the novel, a young woman named Jeanie Deans walks from Scotland to London to appeal to the Queen on behalf of her wrongly-accused sister. Here, Jeanie steps out of the Duke of Argyll’s coach and admires the view that Turner, Reynolds, and William Byrd II had admired.

“The carriage rolled rapidly onwards through fertile meadows, ornamented with splendid old oaks, and catching occasionally a glance of the majestic mirror of a broad and placid river. After passing through a pleasant village, the equipage stopped on a commanding eminence, where the beauty of English landscape was displayed in its utmost luxuriance. Here the Duke alighted, and desired Jeanie to follow him. They paused for a moment on the brow of a hill, to gaze on the unrivalled landscape which it presented. A huge sea of verdure, with crossing and intersecting promontories of massive and tufted groves, was tenanted by numberless flocks and herds, which seemed to wander unrestrained and unbounded through the rich pastures. The Thames, here turreted with villas, and there garlanded with forests, moved on slowly and placidly, like the mighty monarch of the scene, to whom all its other beauties were but accessories, and bore on its bosom an hundred barks and skiffs, whose white sails and gaily fluttering pennons gave life to the whole.”

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