Sidney Richard Percy: Cloud-shine

We talk of sunshine and moonshine, but not of cloud-shine, which is yet one of the illuminations of our skies. A shining cloud is one of the most majestic of all secondary lights. Alice Meynell

Any history of British landscape painting in oils would, in my opinion, be incomplete without the mention of ten important names. Although during his lifetime J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was always primarily thought-of as a painter of marine scenes his name must be included along with those of Richard Wilson 1714-1782, Thomas Smith (1720-1767), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Joseph Wright (1734-1797), George Morland (1763-1804), John Constable (1776-1837), John Martin (1789-1854), John Linnell 1792-1882, and Sidney Richard Percy (1822-1886). The latter was the most gifted and successful of the famous Williams Family of Victorian painters, collectively known as The Barnes School.

To distinguish himself from his artist father Edward Williams (1781-1855), Sidney Richard Percy followed the example of his older brothers Henry John Boddington (1811-1865) and Arthur Gilbert (1819-1895) and dropped the ‘Williams’ from his name. By the age of 20 he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the British Institution, and the Suffolk Street Gallery using his first and middle names only.

Sidney Richard Percy wasn’t a follower of Turner like James Baker Pyne, or of Constable like Frederick William Watts, or of the Dutch Masters like Norwich School painters John Crome and James Stark. He and his five brothers undoubtedly learned much from their father but for recreations of place, mood, and meteorological phenomena the landscapes of Sidney Richard Percy are unique. Few English landscape artists have been as adept at evoking the effects of sunlight upon rock, earth, crops, cattle and most recognisably, through trees as Percy. His canvas’ invariably feature grazing cattle and one or two human figures set against a mountainous background beneath skies fulminating with spectacular cloud formations. Of course, plenty of other important topographical painters of the period such as John Martin knew how to deliver dramatic weather on canvas but in many ways, S.R. Percy was so preoccupied by it he might be described as a painter of skyscapes as much as landscapes.

The artist’s reputation as one of Britain’s leading landscape painters was ensured after the Royal Academy exhibition in 1854 when Prince Albert purchased ‘A View of Llyn Dulyn, North Wales’ for Queen Victoria. When Percy’s work also garnered critical praise and public attention at the Paris Salon his international status was similarly secured. As the Gazette des Beaux-Arts said; “We are happy that Mr. Percy has today deserted Trafalgar Square for the Champs-Elysées.”

Between 1842 and 1886 Sidney Richard Percy exhibited 73 paintings at the Royal Academy, 48 at the British Institution, 73 at the Suffolk Street Gallery of the Royal Society of British Artists, and a further 78 at various other principle venues. Because he achieved significant commercial success during his own lifetime spuriously signed copies and look-a-likes of his landscapes of North Wales and the Scottish Highlands are not uncommon but a genuine Percy is unmistakable. We currently have a superb, large work by S.R. Percy of Grange-over-Sands and the Cumbrian coast available.

Today, works by Sidney Richard Percy are held in the collections of the Tate Britain in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal amongst many others.