Amateur sketchbooks and Dovedale

I have been looking at amateur artist’s sketchbooks here at YCBA.  I am looking to see if artist’s visited Derbyshire and if so, where they went and what they drew.  Some of the sketchbooks are catalogued as containing Derbyshire views (like William Brockedon’s sketchbook), while others are simply documented as an ‘Album of 84 drawings’ or ‘4 volumes of landscapes’.

One thing that has become apparent from looking at the 19th century sketchbooks is the popularity of the Lake District.  This is mirrored by what was going on at the Royal Academy in the late 18th century, where Lake District views significantly outnumbered those of Derbyshire e.g Philip de Loutherbourg exhibited 9 landscapes in 1784, of which 7 were of the Lakes and 2 of Derbyshire.

In a letter to his brother Richard, Joseph Wright describes the Lakes ‘as the most stupendous scenes, I ever behold… they are to the eye what Handel’s choruses are to the ear’.  He also goes on to say that Derbyshire suffers greatly from the comparisons drawn between them – being born and bred in the Lake District, I couldn’t resist including that one.  That said, Derbyshire was still a popular sketching destination which offered the unique lure of limestone scenery, fashionable spas, historic manors and rugged and wild vistas.

Castleton and Dovedale have dominated the Derbyshire scenes.  Here is a selection of Dovedale, sketched over a 100 year period.

Head of Dove Dale by William Brockedon, (1787-1854)

Head of Dove Dale by William Brockedon, (1787-1854)

Dovedale by Mary Hart (b.1887)

Dovedale by Mary Hart (b.1887)

Straits of Dovedale by Charles Hamilton Smith, (1776-1859)

Straits of Dovedale by Charles Hamilton Smith, (1776-1859)

Reynards Cave, Dovedale by Augustus Hare (1834-1903)

Reynards Cave, Dovedale by Augustus Hare (1834-1903)

John Nixon sketch of Martha Norton

As part of the Enlightenment! project we have been doing some research into our existing collections at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

A couple of months ago we had a specialist come and take a look at our 18th and 19th century watercolours.  He took one look at a painting we have of Martha Norton and immediately identified her as the work of John Nixon (1760 -1818).  This was a really useful piece of information as we can now take her out of the ‘unknown artist’ category.

We took the picture out of the frame and sure enough we found a signature on the back.  The Museum bought this picture in 1985 and prior to that, we now know that it was sold at Christies in the 1970s and was once the property of the Governor and Directors of the French Hospital of La Providence.

Martha Norton was the well keeper at St Anne’s well in Buxton.  After the 1772 Buxton Enclosure Act the well became public property and had to be kept in a good state of repair.  Every Easter a well woman was appointed to take care of the well and assist people who were taking the water.  There was no salary and the well women had to rely on tips as an income.  According to Mike Langham in his book ‘Buxton: A People’s History’, Martha was elected to the position 15 times between 1775 and 1820.

St Anne’s Well, 1796

We were really excited to find out our sketch was by John Nixon.  Alongside visiting Buxton we know that he visited Dovedale as we were outbid on a Nixon sketch of picnickers in Dovedale last year.

At the time of this auction we did some research to try and establish when Nixon visited Derbyshire and where he went.  I contacted a few museums who had work by Nixon to see whether they had any Derbyshire scenes (thank you Victoria Art Gallery, Bath and Ulster Museum). They didn’t have anything but Lucy Salt at Derby Museums found a reference in an old Christie’s auction catalogue which included a Nixon entitled ‘Entrance to Cromford’.

The sketch of Dovedale contained the inscription, ‘3 Miss Johnsons of Loughborough . J.N…. Japer[?] Atkinson at Dinner in a cave in Dove Dale, Derbyshire’.  We tried to figure out who these people were but had no luck.   I wonder where the sketch has has ended up?

About John Nixon

There doesn’t appear to be a huge amount of information about Nixon. He was a wealthy Irish merchant and an amateur artist who was best known for his comical sketches.  He seems to have visited many fashionable places (no surprise he came to Buxton then!) and drew the people he encountered.  He was a friend of Thomas Rowlandson and they visited Bath together in 1792.

He also drew satirical sketches of his time in Paris and exhibited 39 paintings between 1781 and 1815 as an honorary exhibitor at the Royal Academy.  (A lot of this info is lifted from Nixon’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

Peter Perez Burdett’s sketch of Full Street, Derby



Pen, Ink and Wash on laid paper watermarked J Whatman.

Bought by Derby Museum and Art Gallery at Mellors and Kirk Fine Art Auctioneers, Nottingham.

Burdett was a cartographer, surveyor and topographical artist. In 1765 he moved into the tall house on the left hand side of the street (next but one to the alms houses) which he had his friend, the architect Joseph Pickford (1734-1782) remodel in the fashionable Gothick style.

A friend of Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) – who painted a double portrait of Burdett and his wife – his circle included many of the leading figures in the Midlands Enlightenment. Amongst others, he corresponded with such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin. His many interests ranged from astronomy and music to printmaking, producing the first aquatint printed in England.

This apparently unfinished drawing shows the east end of Derby Cathedral on the extreme right hand side which is all that now remains of the scene. It was copied by George Bailey (1832-1925) and published as a postcard by Richard Keene, Junior of Derby in 1905. In 1768 Burdett left Derby for Liverpool so as to avoid his creditors, before settling permanently in the Margraviate of Baden in 1774.


 On the back of the sketch there are various inscriptions that read:

 ‘Full Street, Derby 1769’

bottom right ‘East side of All Saint’s Church’

left side. Different hand in ink ‘Bought Mr Thos Chubbard(?) _ _ _ _ _ _’ across bottom left. Inscription on verso in pencil: ‘by P.P.Burdett, a celebrated Surveyor and Mathematician of Derby who became Chief Engineer for the Prince of Baden in Germany. Throsby’s Select Views of Liecestershire 1789. Mr Burdett is represented in Wright’s painting of the Orrery as taking notes on the left side of the picture, also with Wright in his picture of the Gladiator. He was a personal friend of Wright. See Bemrose’s Life and Works of Joseph Wright 1885. In the catalogue of the late(?) of the collection of Prints and Drawings formed by Wm Roscoe Esq published in 1816 there appears the following “P.P. Burdett, Eight of States(?), Historical Lanscaper of  specimens of different processes in aqua-tuita. Six ditto_ _ _ _of_ _ _ _ _ _ , sold £1.17 6. These attempts to execute prints in aqua-tuita were made about the same time as those of J.B de Prince (to whom the invention is attributed) by Mr Burdett, an amateur artist of Liverpool, who is chiefly known to the public by his excellent maps of Derbyshire and Cheshire’ page 165.’

James Brindley the pioneering canal builder

In July the Enlightenment! team bought this sketch of  James Brindley from Bamfords Auction House in Derby.

  James Brindley (1716 – 1772) was a pioneering canal builder.

During the eighteenth-century many leading manufacturors such as Wedgwood and visionaries such as Darwin started to dream of inland waterways.  The duke of Bridegwater commissioned a canal from his colliery in Worsley to Manchester.  Bridgewater employed Brindley as his surveyor and the canal was successfully completed two years later in 1761.  Canal fever spread throughout the area and Wedgwood was involved in the creation of a ‘Grand Trunk’ canal linking the Trent and the Mersey.  The canals motto pro patria populoque fluit (it flows for country and people) sums up their enthusiasm.  Brindley was the engineer for the project and he became something of a national hero.

The canal changed the area and significantly reduced the cost of transporting freight.  This allowed cheaper products to come to the area meaning that more people could afford coal and bread.  Almost all the members of the Lunar Society owned shares in canals.   This sketch was drawn by Francis Parsons as a preparatory drawing for an engraving.  Parsons also painted Brindley in oil, and this picture is at the National Portrait Gallery.

James Brindey was born in Tunstead, near Buxton so it seems fitting that this acquisition will now reside at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.