Line:  Bonington in Normandy

~ Richard Parkes Bonington in Normandy ~  

L'Église Saint-Sauveur, Caen


General DescriptionR. P. Bonington, Eglise Saint Sauveur, Caen

The picture (right) is painted on a small oak panel, 196 x 134 mm, with a provenance from the collection of James Orrock, Esq., which was sold at Christie, Manson and Woods first in 1895, and later in 1926, according to an inventory number (297 E.F.) that is stenciled on the verso.

The Église Saint-Sauveur (formerly Notre-Dame-de-Froide-Rue, until 1802) is depicted from the southwest, showing the scene in a clear afternoon light; a variety of figures at the base of the building are going about their various businesses along the shopfronts abutting the church. 

The layout of the picture corresponds closely to the lithograph (below, left), framing the high ogival windows of the Gothic apse, set against the later rounded Renaissance windows of the second apse, and overlooking a bustling market scene.  The lithograph measures 26.6 x 20.0 mm.

There is furthermore a graphite drawing of this same subject (below, right), with fine white chalk highlights in the foreground, now in the Bowood Estate collection, Wiltshire, UK, which measures 32.5 x 26.4 mm
(see Patrick Noon, Richard Parkes Bonington: the Complete Paintings, 2009, Figure 8).

Though all three representations are quite similar, there are significant variants between the picture, the lithograph and the drawing that are apparent, both in the architecture and the foreground, and they seem to be complementary.

Firstly, are the dimensions:  none of them seems to have been conceived as a direct overlay to trace the motif from one medium to another.  The picture and the drawing rather seem to be preliminary studies for the published lithograph, the picture for chromatic values, and the drawing for refined detailing.  The picture is narrower than the lithograph and the drawing (mostly reducing the bare façade on the left), and extends above, with a greater cloud-billowing sky.  The most notable structure lacking in the picture is a sort of mast, protruding southward from the façade beneath the two centermost gargoyles.

Bonington, Eglise Saint Sauveur, Caen lithograph

Overall, the perspective of the building is quite similar, though the drawing and the lithograph stretch the structure upwards in a more towering and aerial vision, the central ogival window progressively elongated, and giving an effect of height. 

The fine architectural features are clear in the drawing; though the distant spire is lacking (as if Bonington were more interested in rendering the façade), there are a number of features that are carried over rather precisely in the lithograph. Some features are absent from the picture, however, notably the strutted mast that protrudes from the façade

The thronging activity in the foreground that makes up the main part of the lower composition is markedly different in the three images, and the subject of a number of variants, as if the artist were seeking an appropriate solution, hesitating between historical and contemporary figures.  R. P. Bonington, Eglise Saint Sauveur, Caen, graphite sketch

Some of the figures in the picture seem rather anachronistic (like those in the pendant picture of the Palais de Justice), including a monk and a red-cloaked gentleman to the center right, which are not apparent in the other two.  They are replaced respectively by a white-cloaked figure and a burgher; in the drawing these figures appear as a gendarme and a white-aproned woman.

The pivotal figure in the picture is the woman with a white bonnet (who has been diminished in the lithograph, and her unseemingly large basket has been transfomed into a wheelbarrow), and who is removed from the  drawing, giving a broader, animated effect. Her kneeling cohort is partially carried over in the lithograph.

The subsidiary figures vary markedly: a woman with arms akimbo on the far left, is carried over in all three, while the two white-cloaked figures in the lithograph, a visual counterpoint to the right, do not yet appear, though there is a preliminary equivalent, with a white apron, to the left of the gendarme.

The scale of the figures also varies, somewhat larger in the picture and quite smaller in the drawing, with the lithograph as a midpoint of reference, creating an animated foreground in the picture that progressively shrinks.

 What indeed did the building look like in Bonington's time and how faithful is his rendering?

Eglise Saint Sauveur, Caen, by Ambrose Poynter, 1830

If we compare Bonington's representations to an almost contemporary watercolour, now in the British Museum, by Ambrose Poynter, dated 1830 (left), there are several features that stand out:

   -  Poynter's viewpoint is broader, yet narrower, shifting to the east, cutting off the Renaissance window, taking in the western façade and adding the belltower, high above;

  -  the scale of the figures has changed markedly, with Poynter's treatment closer to reality, and Bonington's parti pris of highlighting the animated activiy here showing through;

  -  Poynter's ogival windows are markedly elongated, more even than in Bonington's representations, as his viewpoint broadens, including new storefronts to the left;

  -  the old storefronts have been renovated, with new municipal lighting facilities in evidence;

  -  the garb of the Norman women remains unchanged, with high white bonnets and aprons on several figures;

  -  Poynter's picture is bathed in a bright late afternoon light that yellows the entire composition markedly;  the reddish-brown terracotta tiling on the shop roofs corresponds rather closely to the Bonington picture, in contradistinction to the brighter reddish tiling above the Renassiance nave in Poynter's picture;  Bonington's colouring is much closer in fact to the current chromatics of the edifice.*

In conclusion, the picture would appear to be a preliminary sketch, broadly laid out, possibly realized d'après le motif, highlighting chromatic values and masses, rather than archtitectural detail, which would be subsequently refined in the later versions of the work.  Bonington seems here to have sought the more immediate effect of the whole scene, a vision consonant with his innovative artistic approach that would inspire generations to come.


François Guillet, L’Invention de la Normandie, seminar given at the Université Populaire de Caen, 2010-11

* cf. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caen_France_(17).JPG