Artists sketching in the countryside were a familiar sight in Victorian England; their equipment makes a fascinating field for collectors.
Painting was a very popular pastime in the 19th century, particularly among women. Indeed, some instruction in art
was almost an obligatory part of the education of girls from the upper levels of society.
Like playing the piano or doing needlework, sketching or painting in watercolours was considered a suitably refined occupation for the leisure moments of young ladies. Queen Victoria herself was an accomplished amateur artist (as was her husband Prince Albert) and many of her subjects followed her lead.
Sketching out of doors was particularly popular, as it could be combined with the Victorian love of exploring nature. Paintings depicting seashells, lichen-covered rocks and romantic waterfalls were often undertaken on weekend outings from great country houses.
These jaunts usually revolved around a large picnic, in which painting was included as a quiet entertainment while digesting lunch and the scenery.
Another reason why landscape painting was so popular was that it was comparatively easy to obtain passable results; drawing the human figure tended to show up shortcomings in skill much more cruelly.
PAINTING BY THE SEA
On seaside holidays there would be long walks along the shore, collecting shells and seaweed for sketching and later assembly into dried arrangements.
There are hundreds of amateur and professional watercolours of the period showing young ladies sitting on rocks, themselves sketching or reading.
Watercolour rather than oil was the favourite technique for amateurs because the equipment was less messy and awkward. Before the metal tube was invented in 1841, oil paints were usually supplied in cumbersome bladders and painting out of doors in oil was virtually unheard of.
Watercolour, however, was generally used in the form of small cakes that fitted neatly into boxes (some boxes were so small that they could be carried in the
pocket) and the rest of the equipment, including light sketching easels, was easily portable.
In the second half of the 19th century, as oil painting in the open air became more popular (the Impressionists often worked out of doors), manufacturers also devised oil boxes in which all the necessary equipment could be carried in one fairly manageable package.
Oil painters still faced the inevitable disadvantage, however, that their work took hours or even days to dry, whereas watercolour dried almost immediately.
To overcome this problem, double-sided pins were devised, so that two canvases could be carried face to face; with a pin holding them apart at each corner there was no chance of the surface being disturbed.
Because painting is a process that almost inevitably involves some degree of messiness, it is rare to find equipment that has survived in absolutely immaculate condition.
However, signs of usage, provided they do not involve actual damage, can give equipment an attractively authentic air and need not be a drawback. Any equipment that has been used by a well-known artist will be of great interest
to collectors, whatever condition it is in.
The finest paintboxes were usually of polished mahogany, with brass fittings. They are beautiful miniature pieces of carpentry, with trays for the paints, brushes, and so on ingeniously fitted together and sometimes with a drawer at the bottom to hold the palette. Boxes with a japanned (lacquered) finish were usually a little less expensive.
If you buy such a box you should try to check that all the original contents are intact. These might include mixing saucers and bottles for various liquids that thinned the paints.
Obviously you should not expect the paints themselves to be in mint condition, because even if they have been little used they will tend to have dried and cracked a little with age.
TYPES OF EASEL
The easel can be just as attractive a piece of equipment as the fitted paintbox.
Easels vary enormously in style and size.
Oil painters need one that will hold the canvas upright or tip it very slightly forward to avoid distracting reflections from the wet paint.
Watercolourists, on the other hand, need an easel that will support the paper almost horizontally to prevent the paint running down.
The largest 'studio' easels can be magnificent pieces of furniture (the most splendid are nearly always from the 19th century) and are consequently very expensive.
There are a few specialist dealers in artists' equipment; if you buy items
from them you will tend to pay a high price but can be assured of excellent quality backed up by specialist knowledge. Otherwise you can look out for equipment at auction, in general antiques markets and at antiques fairs.