Written by Errol Fuller | July 2023
If we ignore prehistoric art and art from the antique, until the middle of the 15th century the whole notion of painting in western Europe had been shackled by the Christian religion and there was no place for anything other than visual expressions of religious faith. Nothing else was acceptable.
Then, the shackles were removed and all kinds of new genres came into vogue - portraiture, landscape, still life etc. Among these newly developing areas was the depiction of the natural world. Among the first great exponents of this area was Albrecht Durer (1471 - 1528) who painted celebrated images of beetles, birds, a hare and the famous painting of a humble patch of natural vegetation known as The Great Piece of Turf.
Later, Peter Paul Rubens (1577 - 1640) collaborated with Jan Breughel the Elder (1568 - 1625) to produce landscapes such as The Earthly Paradise and the Fall of Man featuring great varieties of animals and birds, a kind of genre continued with great success by the d'Hondecoeter family. Even Rembrandt incorporated birds into some of his work. The popularity for producing images of nature was continued into the 18th century by artists like Jean- Baptiste Oudry (1686 - 1755). Then there came something of a dearth, a gap that was not truly filled until the great outpouring of animal and bird representation of the 19th century when men like John James Audubon (1785 -1851) in North America or John Gould (1804 -1881) and his associates in Europe took up the challenge and produced great quantities of pictures both as productions for book illustration or as works of art in their own right.
In between these periods representation of the natural world had, curiously, become less fashionable, or at least no names or paintings really come to the forefront. But there are two names from the end of the 18th century and the very beginning of the 19th that do, perhaps, stand out. They are Sarah Stone (1760 - 1844) in Britain, and Jacques Barraband (1767? - 1809) in France, and both, curiously, were using the same kind of source material as models for their paintings, and both had largely similar artistic intention for their work - recording images of the many newly discovered (and vibrantly coloured) creatures being brought to Europe by the various exploratory voyages to far flung corners of the globe that were then occurring regularly.
Although their subject matter usually consisted of portraits of individual birds, it would be misleading to compare either with bird painters of today. In some respects they were more akin to still life painters, as their works were studies of the products of taxidermists busy preserving specimens that were then arriving on European shores from far away. Largely speaking, neither Barraband nor Stone ever saw living examples of many of the birds they were so lovingly painting.
Barraband began his career as a porcelain painter, but was discovered by the French writer Francois Levaillant (1753 - 1824) who needed an illustrator for a series of bird books he was publishing. For this reason Barraband's productions are best known from the engraved copies of his works that are reproduced in Levaillant's books. Unfortunately, his exquisite original watercolours are rarely seen and most are hidden away in private collections. Because the details of his life are a little obscure, he remains somewhat neglected.
Rather more is known about Sarah Stone, and unlike Barraband's paintings her work exists in many museums around the world, but is rare in private hands. Just like Barraband, she was mostly using stuffed birds as models, specimens recently arrived in a dried condition from previously inaccessible parts of the world.
One of the aspects that makes her so interesting is the fact that she was a woman operating in a world where commercial success was usually denied to females. The achievements of women - excepting those of the domestic variety - went largely disregarded, even entirely dismissed. Although many women of the era were talented watercolour painters, their efforts were usually confined to albums or at best allowed to decorate the walls of friends or family. Few enjoyed any degree of commercial success or widespread admiration. Discouraged, ignored or firmly instructed on their place in society, the odds were stacked against women no matter how considerable their talents were.
Sarah Stone proved to be one of the exceptions to such ways of behaviour. In this she might be compared with the celebrated Mary Anning (1799 - 1847) who, at Lyme Regis in Dorset, kick-started the fashion for collecting fossils and gave it a certain scientific rigour despite being a woman who came from the 'wrong side of the tracks'.
Sarah too enjoyed success that went way beyond the expectations or hopes of most women of the day. Beautiful, determined, highly skilled and with a clear vision of what she hoped to achieve, she enjoyed triumph at a comparatively early age, and this success continued for her whole life. Apart from her own personality traits, there were clearly a number of factors that combined to assist her in this.
Her natural talent was obviously essential. Then there was the fact that she married a successful man (and became known as Mrs. Smith) who so admired her ability and so sympathised with her predicament that he actively encouraged the flair she showed and helped to promote her endeavours - rather than stand in her way, as many men of the time would have done. In fact, he was also a painter of ability and in 1791, two years after their wedding, they were exhibiting together at exhibitions in London.
There was also the matter of her subject matter. It was mostly highly detailed portraits of articles newly discovered, specimens arousing intense curiosity and interest in certain sections of society. In addition to her suitability for rendering accurate and exquisite representations of these fascinating items, this selection of subject matter was probably crucial to her success and she quickly became a specialist in making accurate images of preserved birds, mammals, fish, insects, sea shells, fossils, minerals and ethnographic material.
Although she may not have realised it at the time, these images were to assume an importance to later generations far beyond just their actual beauty. When she was sitting in her chair studiously and conscientiously making two-dimensional images of the three-dimensional objects before her, she could never have had any real awareness that her pictures were to acquire a historical and scientific importance out of all proportion to their loveliness. For these paintings were to become visual records of significant historical specimens, many of which no longer exist, and some of which even vanished during her lifetime. A number were of specimens brought back by Captain Cook and some of these were only recorded visually by Sarah, and they are now lost.
So, Sarah Stone's works have become icons of a period when the horizons of what might be termed the 'enlightened world' were literally being rapidly expanded. The beauty of the images obviously facilitates this, as does their no-frills accuracy. But a vital ingredient is the association she formed with Sir Ashton Lever and his famous Leverian Museum. This permitted her unrestricted access to objects that had never been seen before, and in many cases items that would only exist for a comparatively short space of time.
How then did it all start? Sarah was the daughter of a man who painted and decorated fans. It is likely that his services were in demand and that his family enjoyed a reasonable standard of living. It is also likely that the young Sarah learned from her father much about the nature of painting. Indeed, there is no record that she received any kind of formal artistic training other than the guidance she got from him. Decorating fans would have required precision and delicate skills and it seems likely that from an early age Sarah was assisting in the work - or at least observing how he went about things. Any tuition he gave would not have been restricted merely to the act of painting, but would also have included advice on the preparation of materials - the production of colours, the making of brushes, the importance of 'sizing' surfaces that were to receive paint etc.
By seventeen Sarah was confident enough to believe that she could produce paintings of some worth. There seems no record of exactly how it came about, but she aroused the attention of Ashton Lever, then busily acquiring objects for his celebrated collection known as the Leverian Museum. Fascinated by the objects he owned, she approached him to ask if she might paint some of them. One imagines her showing him her previous work and Sir Ashton, sufficiently impressed, agreeing to her proposal. Soon he fully appreciated her talent and actively commissioned her to produce images of his possessions. Whether he selected the subjects or whether she did the choosing is not known but their artistic collaboration must have been a fairly easy-going and mutually friendly one, as it continued for years and she attended the collection almost every day for a long, long time. In fact long after Sir Ashton himself had left the scene.
Sarah Stone's output is extraordinary. She seems to have painted on most days of her comparatively long life and many of her pictures have survived. Part of their survival is certainly due to the fact that many were acquired by museums where they have been carefully curated and valued, and rarely exposed to daylight. The keenness of museums to acquire Sarah's watercolours renders the existence of her paintings in private hands today very rare and this makes an extraordinary collection of 23 recently discovered pictures remarkable. There is unlikely to be another find of similar quality and quantity.
Sarah died in 1844 of pneumonia. Her age at the time of death is given variously as either 82 or 83.