John Glover was undoubtedly Australia’s most important colonial artist before 1850. Indeed, he is ranked as one of the most significant landscape artists of his generation working outside Europe.
At Matlock—mist rising (Landscape with figures) 1814 is a magical landscape by Glover, an excellent example of his English work. It is infused with classical overtones and reflects Glover’s admiration for the work of seventeenth-century French artist Claude Lorrain—Glover’s aim being not to steal from Claude’s work but to think like him. The Claudian format included a high vantage point, a dark foreground enlivened by human or animal staffage and a gentle zigzag through a sunlit centre of the composition. More than this, in At Matlock—mist rising, the sky is luminescent, with light rising from the mountain ranges in the distance, diffusing in the rising mist and radiating over the valley. The scene shows an immense expanse of country, resembling an arcadia—a blessed place. A pool of warm sunlight baths three figures and grazing cattle in the foreground, with the two women listening attentively to the shepherd playing music.
The overt Claudian inspiration of this painting and its classical subject were no doubt designed to appeal to early nineteenth-century collectors. They had a taste for a good vantage point as well as the fleeting beauty of atmospheric effects such as a dewy morning gilded by the sun. It shows the way in which Glover mastered the transition from a warm foreground to cool hues in the distance.
Although Glover moved to London in 1805, he continued to visit the Midlands, staying at Lichfield and Sutton Coldfield. It would have been a relatively short journey from there to Matlock in Derbyshire. Glover would have based this painting on a study from nature, from drawings in one of his many sketchbooks, such as Matlock (craggy landscape with figures) in the Gallery’s Sketchbook mainly of landscapes and scenes in England and Wales c 1802–08. The image is, however, a synthesis rather than an exact topographical depiction. It brings together details from several vantage points to create a more magical scene than any found in nature. Such tension between detailed observation and a composed harmonic poetic vision was a popular aesthetic approach in the early 1800s. The popular approach changed to a more naturalistic vision later in the century, as it did in Glover’s own art—particularly in his approach to landscape in his Australian pastoral subjects.
This painting was previously known as Landscape with figures, but the subject was identified as being of Matlock by Glover expert David Hansen, who spent time walking around the area while researching Glover in 2000. We suggest that the view is from Lovers’ Walk on the Heights of Abraham. The lofty limestone escarpment of Cat Tor is on the left, with the River Derwent in the valley below, and in the distance is the Black Rocks, above Cromford. The large building in the centre may be Cumming’s Old Bath Hotel, which operated from the first decade of the nineteenth century.
The painting is dated 1814. Glover exhibited a number of works with a Matlock title at the Society of Painters in Oil and Watercolours in 1814, 1815 and 1816. In 1814, he showed At Matlock—mist rising (catalogue number 102) and this title captures the spirit of the painting. It is on this basis we have titled the painting.
Anne Gray, Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 65, autumn 2011 Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010