Among the beautiful illustrations of the art books in the Special Collections Copyright Deposit Collection, classmark N (Fine Arts), one which stood out was the anonymous The Progress of a Water-Coloured Drawing (c. 1804). The author, who says ‘I shall not add my name to it, for in this country every thing finds its level’, is now known to be the 18th-19th century landscape artist John Laporte, who has a unique and recognisable drawing style which can be seen across his other works.
Laporte states that his purpose in creating the book is in response to the lack of instruction for ‘the progress of a drawing’. What follows, therefore, are a set of 16 incredible watercolour drawings, each displaying a new layer of colour and detail added by hand, with instructions, again with colour added by hand, on the facing page for how to achieve the opposite colouring.
While the outline sketch, a soft-ground etching, is clearly in Laporte’s style, it remains unclear as to whether Laporte himself or another artist added the colour.
Interestingly, there also some notes in pencil in our copy, some of which are clearly those of the colourist as they name the colours used to create each stage of the painting (pictured).
Throughout as well, there are pencilled in numbers on the reverse side of each drawing, noting the order in which they appear. This may be the colourist making their notes on each page to help themselves, or the binder know the order in which the drawings were to appear.
There may be a more contributors at work too, since, as can be seen from the numbered page, there are some doodles added which appear to be the work of someone else, testing their pencil. Just after the introduction, someone, perhaps the same person, has been doing some sums!
At the back of the book meanwhile, another party has drawn some facial profiles. Clearly, a lot of hands have contributed to the art in this book in one way or another!
As each of Laporte’s sketches appears, more colour and layers of detail are added.
Yet even in recreating the same picture twice with only more colour added each time, the results are slightly different, with subtle details, particularly the line work, indicating that which the illustrator could not manage to replicate perfectly across each picture.
The result does not appear imperfect, however, but rather a beautiful demonstration of the mutable nature of art.
Lizzie Marshall and Beth Dumas
Lighting the Past team