On holiday from Dr. Glennie’s Academy in 1819, at the age of 36, Prout first travelled to Normandy and up the Seine (fig. 1). Of his pictures shown at the Society of Painters in Water-Colours in Bond Street in 1820, Rouen with its many old buildings was the richest of his subjects. From 1821 he sketched in Belgium, the Netherlands and on the Rhine, in Saxony, Bavaria and Bohemia, and in 1822 all thirteen of the continental views he showed at the Society sold on the first day. From 1824 onwards he toured Italy, and his Venetian views made a real éclat. The Illustrations of the Rhine, Drawn from Nature and on Stone, published by Ackermann in 1824, show rather weak work in mountain, sky and the stern castles, but much charm in more myopic focus with the architecture – elaborate tracery, pillars, arches and crockets, towers and turrets, timber frames – and figures in the foregrounds with unfamiliar regional costumes and accoutrements. After 1822 his continental views were so successful that he was to exhibit very few further English or marine views, and by the 1830s he could be said to be one of the most celebrated half-dozen water-colour artists. In 1829, the year before George IV died, he was appointed ‘Painter in Water Colours in Ordinary to his Majesty’, a position renewed by William IV and by Victoria and Albert; there are six Prouts in the Royal Collection.
Prout was acquainted with the consumptive wunderkind Richard Parkes Bonington, sketched alongside him at St Omer in Normandy, and encouraged him to visit Venice, but in his own work he essentially never abandoned the topographical picturesque antiquarian conventions of his youth, repeating old subjects and formulaic compositions. In Sketches at Home and Abroad (1844) he eloquently defends the appeal of old buildings to artists (e.g., fig. 2), and uses terms about contemplating them rather like Wordsworth’s when he was writing about the moral influence of Nature:
‘Architecture is, indeed, the work of man’s hand, but adorned by the hand of time, and is frequently associated, in perfect harmony, with the loveliest scenery. It claims not the glories of the vast creation, its infinite variety, and ever changing beauties, but the lofty ivied arch, “the long drawn aisle”, the silent desecrated cloister, are venerated relics of by-gone days, hallowed remembrances sacred to the heart, and lovely to the eye; they are landmarks of the inheritance of our forefathers; every stone, to a reflective mind, awakens thoughts which ennoble and instruct, impressing the soul with lofty feelings. They are temples, beautiful in death, and well suited for the devotion of an enthusiastic artist.’
However, seen among his contemporaries, he lacks the range, the inspiration, the originality and fluidity of Turner, Cotman or Bonington and their ambitious atmospheric effects. His wooden figures decorate rather than animate the streets in their picturesque costumes; too often perhaps they are seen from the back, and often (this is particularly true of the lithographs) four little dots make them a face (fig. 3). In his later years Prout fell from fashion and suffered financial hardship; critics were to call him ‘somewhat meretricious’.
When he was teaching at Dr. Glennie’s, Prout also had as many as thirty private pupils: in Greenwich, Wandsworth, Lambeth and Clapham; and also across the river in the City, St James’s, Whitehall and Grosvenor Square. He held a drawing class on Blackheath. Under his influence one of Dr. Glennie’s sons became an artist and another a travel writer. A letter from Prout to Arthur Glennie of 1829 apparently discourages him from being an artist rather than following a more conventional career: ‘go on aspire – fag and perspire to much fame – and yet, what is it? Mutton and beef is better’. Early in his career Prout was friendly with important patrons in South London with a good eye for quality in water-colours: not only the Ruskins, father and son, but John Allnutt, a sophisticated wine merchant with a large house on the south side of Clapham Common and a collector of Turner and Constable, and Thomas Griffith (1839-1861), J. M. W. Turner’s agent, who bought Prout’s work. Prout was to be buried in Norwood Cemetery, below a commonplace headstone. Last year (with a friend from the Turner Society) my wife and I explored the cemetery looking for Thomas Griffith’s grave, and cut away the ivy that had totally obliterated its striking stone cross. It was on Griffith’s ample lawn in Lower Norwood in 1840 that the young John Ruskin met his hero Turner for the first time.
Ruskin also enormously admired Prout; his early imitations of Prout’s water-colours, as he acknowledged, influenced his own style. He often wrote about him, first in Modern Painters of 1843 (seq.), and then in an anonymous monograph full of praise in the Art Journal in 1849. Much later, after Prout’s death in 1879 he organised a Fine Arts Society exhibition of his work together with that of William Henry Hunt, publishing an eloquent essay about them in the catalogue. Ruskin and his artist friends coined the words Proutism and Proutise; he described Prout’s version of the picturesque as the ‘nobler’ type, and associated him with calm, quietness, honesty, and gaiety. He used a characteristically strange metaphor for his work in comparing him with Turner: ‘He reflected the scene like some rough old Etruscan mirror – jagged, broken, blurred, if you will, but It, the thing itself still; while Turner gives it, and himself too, and ever so much of fairyland besides’. Ruskin noted his weakness in colour, saying his works were still ‘tinted drawings ‘ as the artists made before Turner and Girtin showed how to do better than that, and declared there was ‘more of Vandyke brown than darkness in the shadows of his Venetian scenes’. Just like Turner, said Ruskin, Prout could draw the poor but not the rich.
Prout himself published eighteen really delightful manuals for painting in water-colours, such as Rudiments of Landscape in Progressive Studies (Ackermann, 1813) and Hints of Light and Shadow (Ackermann, 1838), with illustrations in soft-ground etching, hand-coloured aquatint, and (later) in lithography. He recommends the use of coarse wove paper, and advises about composition, colours (warm and cold), and foreground staffage (recommending stones and the large-leaved plant burdock, which Turner loved). Like a good print-maker Prout thought hard and long about chiaroscuro; the same principle is at work in the great black and white photographers, like Ansel Adams, who favour ‘contrast’. In Sketches at Home and Abroad of 1844 he quoted an axiom of Ruskin’s from a passage on Turner in Modern Painters (Vol. I, II, ii, 2; excised, incidentally, by Ruskin in the 5th edition of 1851 and afterwards): ‘a good artist paints in colour, but thinks in light and shadow’. Prout adds that ‘Nothing shows more the right feeling of an artist than in disposing the separate masses, of full radiance and vapoury gloom’. The image reproduced here (fig. 4), the lithographic Plate VII of Prout’s Hints on Light and Shade of 1838, drawn on the stone by himself, is an example of his principle of carrying dark into light and vice versa. In the corresponding letter-press he explains how ‘in the accompanying Venetian subject the light enters from the building on the left, and conducted by an awning to the craft and figures, and again by drapery, falls into the full mass of sunshine’. When discussing composition he often uses the idea of ‘leading the eye’; indeed he wrote, ‘The eye should never rest’…
In his latter years at De Crespigny Terrace Prout was a member of the (older ?) Ruskins’ circle. On a Sunday in February 1852, the day after Prout attended the birthday dinner for their son (who was that year actually absent in Venice), and which was traditionally attended by great painters whom they patronised, the parents wrote to Ruskin that they had heard at church how Prout on returning home in apparent great good spirits, ascended to his painting room and died of an apoplectic fit.