Schooling the Masters

Oct 10 2012

Liz Waring, Curator of Visual Art, on a new display at the Graves Gallery considering Dr Thomas Monro’s influence on the masters of watercolour.

Dr Thomas Monro (1759-1833) was Principal Physician at the Bethlem Royal Hospital (known as Bedlam) and also Physician to George III during his ominously named, ‘last illness’. He was also a watercolour enthusiast, collecting watercolour drawings as well as painting them himself.

Over time Monro had gathered together a large personal collection of watercolours by artists such as Thomas Hearne (1744-1817), Edward Dayes (1763-1804) and most notably, John Robert Cozens (1752-1797). Often seen as the father of British watercolour, Cozen’s had suffered a nervous breakdown at the end of his life and had been admitted into Bedlam. It was here that Monro met him and, realising the genius of the watercolourist, bought a large selection of Cozen’s works to add to his personal collection.

In 1794, J M W Turner (1775-1851) and Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) joined a number of other young artists who met at Monro’s house to study and copy the drawings in his collection. Known as the Monro Academy or Monro School, this informal group of artists were given a small amount of money and supper in return for about three hours of copying work. Monro would also take the young artists on sketching trips to further their skills.

Thomas Girtin, Fountain Abbey, c1799 © Museums SheffieldTurner and Girtin were employed by Monro from 1795 to 1798 to copy the outlines or unfinished drawings by Cozens, from which they created finished works. Girtin is said to have drawn the outlines while Turner added the washes of colour, something which Girtin apparently complained about to fellow artist Cornelius Varley (1781-1873) as it did not give ‘him the same chance of learning to paint’.

Monro’s effect on these artists was considerable; the eminent Victorian artist, critic and scholar John Ruskin even went so far as to credit Monro with Turner’s success: ‘His true master was Dr Monro; to the practical teaching of that first patron and the wise simplicity of method of watercolour study’

Monro’s influence was to continue beyond Turner and Girtin; John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) and Peter De Wint (1784-1849) were from a slightly younger generation of artists who were also introduced to Monro’s academy a few years later. Cotman attracted Monro’s eye when he left Norwich to make a career as an artist in London, while De Wint was introduced to Monro by his friend and tutor John Varley (1740-1809). It follows therefore that some of the works Cotman and De Wint copied were by Turner and Girtin, which would subsequently strongly influence the younger artists’ early work.

The display Turner and the Monro Masters is currently on show at the Graves Gallery.


Top: J M W Turner, Brinkburn Priory, about 1832 © Museums Sheffield
Right:  Thomas Girtin, Fountain Abbey, about 1799 © Museums Sheffield


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