George Augustus Wallis is an extraordinary example of an artist who was fêted throughout Europe in his lifetime, described as the ‘English Poussin’, with a distinguished roster of patrons before the age of forty, who is now barely known or regarded. When he is noted it is either for a small group of plein air oil studies often attributed to him or for his activities as a picture dealer and agent. Part of the problem is that Wallis spent almost all of his adult life away from England, largely in Italy and Germany and made little effort to exhibit in his native land as his patronage, even from British collectors, tended to be gathered from visitors. His work was acquired by some of foremost connoisseurs of the day including the Lord Warwick who funded this first studies in Rome, Thomas Hope, Lord Bristol, the Marquis of Lansdowne, Sir William Hamilton, Lord Berwick, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Bertel Thorvaldsen and by William Young Ottley who wrote in 1814 that: Gifted by nature with sublime ideas, an an enthusiast in his profession, this artist has successfully employed his eminent talents in landscape scenery, appropriately enriching the same with historical or fabulous subjects – which unite the wildness of Salvator Rosa with the classic chastity of Nicolo Poussin, and the elegant simplicity of his kinsman, Gaspar, without yielding the palm to any of them, either in the grandeur of his conceptions or in the bold facility of his executions. In spite of his relative obscurity since his death, Wallis deserves to be highly regarded as a painter and draughtsman of the highest calibre and as one of the last proponents of the classical tradition.
Little is known of Wallis’s early training before he arrived in Italy in 1788 under the Earl of Warwick’s patronage. Early on he settled in Naples and gravitated to the small artistic community there, which to some extent focussed around the household of Sir William Hamilton, and his style developed under the influence of Philipp Hackert and Christoph Heinrich Kniep. At this period he seems to have travelled widely in central and southern Italy as well as in Sicily in the company of Thomas Hope, sketching prolifically in pen and ink, pencil and oil. His early masterpiece of 1790, The Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli (Private collection) dates from this time. By the time Wallis settled in Rome in 1794 with his wife and daughter he was evidently already considered to be part of well established community of British artists in the city, however, he increasingly gravitated to the company of the Austrian and German artists resident in Rome, especially Joseph Anton Koch, Christian Reinhart and particularly to the Dane, Asmus Jakob Carstens, whose artistic interests and outlooks were increasingly closer to his own. Wallis and Carstens also shared an interest in subjects from Ossian and Wallis, on the basis of the present drawings, the largest and most highly finished in his oeuvre, must have also been greatly influenced by Carstens’s exhibition of eleven large figure drawings and watercolours in 1795. Two of Wallis’s Ossianic paintings, acquired by Lord Bristol, were exhibited in Rome in 1801 and received glowing praise including a notice in Madame de Staël’s Corinne which served to cement his international reputation.
The present drawings appear to date from circa 1799-1802, a period when Wallis was establishing his international reputation as the leading landscape painter in Italy, culminating with his election to the Roman Academy. Wallis and his close collaborator Koch especially studied Poussin’s work and our drawing of The Gathering of Phocion’s Ashes appears to be directly informed and inspired by two of the French master’s works, Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and The Funeral of Phocion (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff and two other versions, Louvre and the Glass House, New Canaan). Our drawing of An Ideal landscape with a Memorial to Epaminondas and the related drawing owned by Thorvaldsen (Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, Inv. No. D650, 662 x 985 mm, which has been dated to 1799) was similarly developed from a knowledge of Poussin’s Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion. It also seems likely that Wallis also used his friend Schinkel’s drawings as source material. Wallis’s final major work of his Roman period was Ave Maria (exhibited RA 1807, now lost) which employed the glazing method which he learned from his friend Washington Alston who had arrived in Rome in 1805. Unfortunately Ave Maria and most of Wallis’s subsequent paintings have suffered from the bitumen which Allston’s technique employed.
During the Napoleonic Wars many Italian families were anxious to sell paintings from their collections and Wallis returned to London with a number of old masters which he had acquired with the intention of selling them to British collectors. His relatively short stay in England was marred by the ill feeling engendered by his behaviour during the French occupation of Rome when he was believed to have informed on the activities of his fellow artists to the French. Whatever the truth, Wallis seems to have had a deserved reputation for behaving badly and his stay in London was short-lived. In October 1807 he left for Spain to act as agent for William Buchanan, the picture dealer. He spent two years following in the wake of the armies in the Peninsula acquiring paintings before they could be seized by the French; these included Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, Correggio’s Madonna of the Basket, Murillos from the Palace in Santiago as well as major works from the collections of the Dukes of Alba and Altamira.
Wallis left Spain in 1810 on an extended return to England by way of Milan, Rome and Heidelberg which after a short stay in London, he decided to make his home. Wallis was inspired by the scenery and especially by Heidelberg Castle which became the subject of his late Romantic masterpieces. Wallis and his work exerted a huge influence of the younger generation of German landscape painters, particularly Carl Rottman and Ernst Fries. Wallis was regarded as one of the city’s most distinguished inhabitants and received visits from Goethe (who had received glowing reports of Wallis’s paintings from Schlegel in 1805), the Austrian Emperor and the Czar of Russia. During these years he travelled extensively before returning to Italy in about 1816, eventually settling in Florence in 1818.
During his years in Heidelberg Wallis had abandoned the idealized ‘Historical’ landscapes that had characterised the earlier part of his career in favour of a more literal transcription of nature and the sublime. However in about 1820 he again returned to historical landscapes as well as executing more Romantic works whilst continuing to search out further old masters. Wallis remained active as a painter until the end of his life although his powers were obviously in decline by the mid-1830s.
These two magnificent drawings of Idealized Classical landscapes each celebrate the death of a famous Greek commander and statesman who endeavoured to maintain the tradition of democracy.
Epaminondas (Ἐπαμεινώνδας) circa 418 BC – 362 BC), was a Theban general and statesman who transformed the Ancient Greek city-state of Thebes, leading it out of Spartan subjugation into a preeminent position in Greek politics. In the process he broke Spartan military power with his victory at Leuctra and liberated the Messenian helots, a group of Peloponnesian Greeks who had been enslaved under Spartan rule for some 230 years. Epaminondas reshaped the political map of Greece, fragmented old alliances, created new ones, and supervised the construction of entire cities. He was militarily influential as well, inventing and implementing several major battlefield tactics.
The Roman orator Cicero called Epaminondas "the first man of Greece”, however, the changes he wrought on the Greek political order did not long outlive him, as the cycle of shifting hegemonies and alliances continued unabated. Epaminondas, who had been praised in his time as an idealist and liberator, is today largely remembered for a decade of campaigning.
Epaminondas was mortally wounded at the Battle of Mantinea in 362 BC. Informed he would die when the point of the spear that had broken off in his chest was removed, he asked if his shield had been saved. He was assured it had been, thus he died as the spear-head was removed, advising his comrades to make peace with the Spartans. Hence, in Wallis’s depiction of An Epitaph for Epaminondas, the general’s shield is prominently displayed on a Doric column, with an inscription bearing his name around the base.
Phocion, (Φωκίωνος) popularly known as “The Good” was a great Athenian general and statesman of the 4th century BC. Born of humble origin, he studied under Plato, Xenocrates, and possibly Diogenes and believed that extreme frugality was the condition for virtue. Phocion commanded universal respect and was elected strategos forty-five times. In spite of his military and naval successes against the Macedonians, most notably by securing Euboea against Macedonia and at Megara, he had come to see that a voluntary acquiescence to the supremacy of an enlightened ruler was better for Athens and for Greece than a hopeless struggle in defense of a political system that had lost its virtue. His advice was not taken; but the fatal battle of Chaeronea in which the independence of the Greek republics was lost for ever, proved its soundness. Phocion struggled at Athens to repress what appeared to him the reckless desire for war on the part of the fanatical patriots, for which he was regarded as a traitor. He was tried for treason on a false charge brought by his political enemies and after execution his body, flung unburied over the borders of the state, was carried by some of his friends to Eleusis, and burned there. Our drawing shows his grieving widow collecting his ashes. The Athenians soon began to raise monuments to his memory and Plutarch's Life of Phocion portrays him as a patriot, with a stern and stoical sense of duty.
Peter Bower notes: The paper used for both drawings is a trimmed heavyweight sheet of handmade laid drawing paper made on a single-faced mould. Watermarked P MILIANI FABRIANO. Both sheets have a very distinct coarse felt impression visible in the surface of the paper. The paper was made by Pietro Miliani (1744-1817) one of the most innovative and dynamic papermakers in Italian papermaking, at Fabriano in Ancona. The watermark in both sheets has been partly trimmed off along the bottom of the letters. The watermark is partly obscured by the black chalk in some places but is most visible along the top edge of The Gathering of Phocion’s Ashes. Miliani watermarks of this type first appear in the 1790s. These are very large sheets, unusual in Italian papermaking at this date, and the original sheet size was probably similar to the English size Double Imperial (44 x 30 inches). Wallis has worked on both surfaces of the paper: An Ideal Landscape with a Memorial to Epaminondas is drawn on the felt side of the sheet and The Gathering of Phocion’s Ashes on the wire side of the sheet.
We are indebted to the work of Colin J Bailey (‘The English Poussin – An Introduction to the Life and Work of George Augustus Wallis’, The Annual Report of the Walker Art Gallery, no. 6, 1975-76, pp. 35-54 and , ‘George Augustus Wallis in Italy’, published in Scotland and Italy: The fourth annual conference of the Scottish Society for Art History, 1989, pp. 28-58) and Monika von Wild (George Augustus Wallis (1761-1847): Englischer Landschaftsmaler – Monographie und Oeuvrekatalog, Frankfurt, 1996).