Lee Cove Sands
Oil on canvas; initialled and dated 1895
7 x 14 inches
John Brett studio sale, 1902;
Christiana Payne, John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter, Yale University Press, 2010, number 1447
Brett made his name at the Royal Academy's 1858 exhibition with The Stonebreaker, (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), painted in painstaking Pre-Raphaelite detail with 'truth to nature'. Ruskin wrote of it that 'in some points of precision it goes beyond anything that the pre-Raphaelites have done yet', and concluded with the challenge, 'If he can paint so lovely a distance from the Surrey Downs ... what would he not make of the chestnut groves of the Val d'Osta!' Brett spent the following summer touring the continent with Ruskin - but his Val d'Osta of 1859 (private collection) confronted Ruskin with the most literal result of the approach to landscape advocated by him, and came as a disappointment to the critic who thought it a 'Mirror's work, not Man's'. As Ruskin's influence on Brett - and indeed their friendship - waned, the artist gradually found his metier in coastal and marine painting, having discovered (as he said pithily) that 'sentiment in landscape is chiefly dependent on meteorology.'
In the autumn of 1895, John Brett visited the coast of North Devon, staying in the family cottage of fellow artist William Pye. There, he painted the coves and cliffs of Lee, including this study of Lee Cove Sands, sketched en plein air. While Brett's work appeared often in London, he also sent his pictures to numerous provincial exhibitions - so many that he 'made a table of his autumn programme, listing the paintings sent to Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, Dudley, Leeds,' etc (Payne, p. 173). This particular sketch was sent to Southend-on-Sea in Essex, and exhibited there in 1896. Brett’s oil sketches were painted in single sittings of two or three hours, each an unadulterated observation painted straight from nature. The sketches were usually in a 7" x 14" ‘double square’ format, suited to Brett as much for ease of use (he had special racks in his boat that held them as they dried) as for the aptness of shape to the coastal landscapes that he painted.