View of High Tor, Matlock , Derbyshire

by Thomas Baker (Harborne 1808 - 1864 Leamington Spar), known as Baker of Leamington

Matlock Tor was an inspiration to painters from the later eighteenth century onwards, when following the precepts of the Rev William Gilpin they began to explore the heroic and expressive possibilities of their native landscape in the pursuit of the picturesque.

Joseph Wright of Derby painted the same view captured here by Thomas Baker half a century earlier in a painting now in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Like Wright, Baker emphasises the awesomeness of the escarpment, towering over the human traffic below. But unlike the Fitzwilliam painting – where a dramatic sunrise reinforces the monumental grandeur of an unpeopled landscape – Baker’s work is conceived in a more approachable spirit. Wright and his contemporaries divine a power in ‘awful Nature’ which might crush the spirit into insignificance as much as it should inspire admiration. Baker’s pastoral vision is in this sense more akin to the spirit, say, of Wordsworth than the dread of Coleridge.

Well-schooled in the compositional lessons of the eighteenth century painters Baker depicts a landscape in which the viewer – and the human subjects of his paintings – can appreciate more comfortably. The power of his painting comes in the precise observation and the replication of the harmonious and beautiful effects to be found in nature itself. In painting High Tor, Matlock he recognises the innate visual excitement of the view and knows that this requires only faithful translation onto canvas without bombastic effect. He can be compared in this with the earlier landscapist Thomas Jones, whose unpretentious Welsh landscapes are now recognised to be among the most important products of eighteenth century British painting, and which reproduce their subjects so exactly that they are still recognisable over two hundred years later. The slightest details in Baker’s painting reveal his fidelity to the subject: the two tree stumps in the foreground appear as vigorous young trees in Wright’s earlier painting.

This painting was produced relatively early in Baker’s career, on a painting excursion to Derbyshire. After an initial training under Joseph Vincent Barber at the Charles Street Academy in Birmingham – where one of his fellow pupils was his lifelong friend the watercolour landscapist David Cox - he made frequent trips north of his native Warwickshire, to paint subjects such On the Conway near Llanrust 1835 (British Institution no.470) and A View in Westmoreland (exhibited British Institution 1837 no.250) and paintings of subjects such as the park and house at Haddon Hall, including Haddon Hall in 1843 (British Institution no.389). By 1847 he had produced a number of Scottish subjects including On the Clyde near Lanark which he exhibited at the Royal Academy show of that year, no.353.

The bulk of his oeuvre, however, remains the Warwickshire landscapes whose elegiac mood remains always true to their subject, visions of cattle meadows and the parks of country houses – particularly Stoneleigh, a favourite subject and the seat of his great patron Lord Leigh – landscapes which where they have not been destroyed by the spread of towns are immediately recognisable today in appearance and character. Their character is frequently more intimate than sweeping – cattle in the corners of fields, fisherman by mills, beasts sheltering from the heat by a copse – but his treatment of the county’s major landmarks, such as Warwick Castle from the Avon (Private Collection) or Lord Leicester’s Stables, Kenilworth Castle (Private Collection) easily rank as some of the most accomplished paintings of those subjects, and in paintings like the panorama Harvest-time from the top of Barford Hill (Private Collection) he achieves a breadth of vision and a fluidity of technique that remind the viewer of John Constable.

Baker exhibited four times at the Royal Academy between 1831 and 1858, and nineteen times at the British Institution between 1834 and 1860. His most frequent exhibitions, however, were at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists which he helped to found. After his death in Leamington Spa in1864 – which was clouded by suspicions of murder – he was returned to his native Harborne and buried close to his old friend David Cox at St Peter’s Church.

View of  High Tor, Matlock , Derbyshire

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Oil on canvas

13 x 19 inches

UK Private Collection

Thomas Baker's MS Diary (Birmingham University Library) September 1839 no. 152