52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 10: the Moody Journal, romantic and beautiful

“Switzerland: town and lake of Lucerne” from Thomas Moody’s travel journal, 1822, watercolour by Joseph Axe Sleap.

The front cover of the travel journal of Thomas Moody, 1822.

On 27 July 1822 – 190 years to the day before this post is written – Thomas Moody set off from Paris to begin a tour which would allow him to take a “bird’s eye view” of the “romantic and beautiful scenery in Switzerland and the naïve simplicity of its natives”. Arriving in Geneva on 31 July, he proceeded on a tour of much of Switzerland and Italy, reaching as far south as the remains of Roman Herculaneum to the south of Naples, before returning home to London in May 1823, after having travelled for not far short of a year. Very much in the tourist spirit of the time, it was his version of the Grand Tour, encompassing many of the archetypal sites which had attracted the well-heeled British visitor for many decades previously.

“Church and Piazza San Marc at Venice” from Thomas Moody’s travel journal, 1822, watercolour by Joseph Axe Sleap.

“Il Duomo or Cathedral at Milan” from Thomas Moody’s travel journal, 1822, watercolour by Joseph Axe Sleap.

Moody was clearly an experienced traveller, but nothing more is known about him: apart from the Journal which he subsequently wrote of his travels, his biography is a blank sheet. The text of the Journal, although 221 pages long, contains few surprises: it reveals little different in experience or attitude from many such works.

“Switzerland: Inn at Château d’Ox in the valley of Gesnai” from Thomas Moody’s travel journal, 1822, watercolour by Joseph Axe Sleap.

However, the illustrations are a different story. The volume contains 18 vivid and detailed original watercolours – 14 of them at full-page size – which have been pasted in, some of them covering up more amateurish drawings done directly onto the page, perhaps by Moody himself.

“Rome: Coliseum” from Thomas Moody’s travel journal, 1822, watercolour by Joseph Axe Sleap.

“Ruins of the ancient Forum at Rome” from Thomas Moody’s travel journal, 1822, watercolour by Joseph Axe Sleap.

Although none are signed, the identity of the artist is revealed on the back of a painting of the Coliseum in Rome (p.105), where  a pencil inscription states “J Sleap begs to say that this is the last drawing he will make at so very low a price”! This tells us that Moody commissioned the illustrations for his journal from an artist named Joseph Axe Sleap. Sleap (1808-1859) was only 14 years old when Moody undertook his journey, and so it is fair to assume that perhaps several years passed before the Journal was completed.

“Mont Blanc from Sallenches” from Thomas Moody’s travel journal, 1822, watercolour by Joseph Axe Sleap.

Watercolours of London and of Lake Maggiore by Sleap held now in the Tate Gallery and the V & A respectively display the same rich colouration and attention to detail, and confirm the attribution.

“Genoa” from Thomas Moody’s travel journal, 1822, watercolour by Joseph Axe Sleap.

Ultimately, Sleap was not a hugely successful painter. He is said to have lived largely in poverty, and was just beginning really to make his name when he died at the early age of 51. Clearly, these must be early works: perhaps his complaint about the rate of pay should be read as the comment of a young artist just beginning to make his way in the world? At any rate, like Swiss scenery, his work is both romantic and beautiful, and Moody’s journal is immeasurably enhanced by it.

NR

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