Tag Archives: Regency country life

W H Pyne and a View into Rural England

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I collect original early 19th century prints – costume prints, London views and, whenever I can lay hands on them, the work of William Henry Pyne (1769–1843). Pyne is not a great artist, but he had the knack of catching the everyday lives of English people, especially the working classes, in a vivid and revealing way.

His The Costume of Great Britain, designed, engraved, and written by W. H. Pyne, was published in 1808 and fetches large sums of money these days – I’ve had to make do with a reprint of the whole book, but I do own a few of the individual plates. You can see two of these at my posts for 5th November 2015 (‘Pray Remember Guy Fawkes!’) and February 18th 2014 (recycling Georgian Style.)

But the work I enjoy the most are the sketches he made and published to help amateur artists populate the landscapes they made with suitable figures. With virtually everyone claiming any degree of gentility being expected to sketch creditably, this must have been a huge market. The first of these came out in Microcosm, or a Picturesque Delineation of the Arts, Agriculture, and Manufactures of Great Britain; in a Series of above a Thousand Groups of Small Figures for the embellishment of Landscape … the whole accurately drawn from Nature and etched by W. H. Pyne and aquatinted by J. Hill, to which are added Explanations of the Plates by C. Gray. That was published in 1803 and was followed by Etchings of Rustic Figures for the Embellishment of Landscape in 1815. I own a number of plates from the first (which I can’t scan at the moment as they are in store: the joys of building work!) and several from the second.

The countrywomen and children at the top of this post are from Etchings of Rustic Figures… as are the Gypsies below.

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My favorites are from On Rustic Figures in Imitation of Chalk, (1817) and I’m lucky enough to own the whole volume. It was published by Ackermann, of Repository fame and would have fitted in well with the artists’ supplies that they sold from the shop at 101, Strand. Below is the Woodcutter.

Woodcutter from W H Pyne's Rustic Figures

In the Introduction Pyne wrote:

“The study of drawing the characters of the peasantry, or rustic figures, although having its foundation in a certain knowledge of the proportions of the human figure, is nevertheless essentially different from the study of the elegant or classic figure, and, perhaps is as great a degree as the manners and habits of he peasantry differ from those of the most polished of the human race. Not that the rustic is always devoid of dignity; but his is a dignity of a peculiar order, existing in nature, without either the elegance or the affectedness which may be derived from education.”

He goes on to mock the “insipid…rustics of the elegant designer” and points out that “Nothing can be more absurd than to see a race of gods and goddesses, with scythes and hay-rakes, attired in waggoners’ frocks and mob caps.”

His drawings, even of the poorest, avoid any kind of attempt at caricature or ‘humour’ as so many other images of the day do. These charming children, for example, or the spinner at her wheel, seem to me to be genuine attempts to depict the subjects sympathetically, and realistically, in their setting.

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I love the detail in these drawings – the construction of a bucket, the way the spinning wheel works and, in the final example, the man sharpening his scythe. We can see the construction of his clothes but also the holder for the sharpening stone fixed to his belt in the small of his back.

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