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Hercules Brabazon Brabazon (born Hercules Sharpe, 1821-1906) was the youngest son of an Irish aristocratic family with estates in Ireland and Britain. Trained at Cambridge University, HBB inherited wealth, lands and titles upon the death of his older brother (in 1847) and father (in 1858). He spent the remainder of his life summering on the Riviera, with occasional trips to North Africa, the Middle East, and India. As a wealthy amateur musician and painter, he knew Franz Liszt and J.S. Sargent. An early member of the New English Art Club*, he held his first one-man exhibition in 1892 at the age of 71. In the words of Sir Frederick Wedmore, he was "a country gentleman, who at seventy years old made his debut as a professional artist, and straightaway became famous."
Brabazon combines the atmospheric* effects of J.M.W. Turner with the deliciously suggestive brush and color sense of Richard Parkes Bonington. Eritrea (c.1874) shows more of the Bonington influence in its delicate sky and deftly abbreviated figures. Using a buff tinted paper to soften the light and establish the basic tonality of the image, Brabazon can treat most of the large areas— the sky, walls and water — as negative space, and simply paint areas of highlight (using chinese white or gouache), shadow, or vivid local color.
His color accents follow the traditional emphasis on blues and reds, subdued slightly so that they can be used in larger areas. This painting is worth careful study to appreciate the suggestiveness and poetic aptness of Brabazon's technique. The figures are never more than two or three adjacent blobs, but this is unmistakably a human crowd with brisk business to conclude along the waterfront market. The shadows along the top of the right wall and the tower at center reveal the effortless and understated accuracy of his technique. Nothing is ever labored or "finished" in Brabazon: he usually completed a painting in about an hour, often in less time than that, utilizing the impressionistic resources of watercolor to catch the image in a heartbeat of light.
Brabazon's life in retirement — wandering the spas and resorts of the Mediterranean, playing piano with the likes of Franz Liszt, relaxing at his grand estates — was nicely caricatured in "thoughts from HBB" written by a friend in 1879: I live in London at times — then comes a dull day — murky — I shudder, I seize a carpet bag — I pack in it a paintbox, a sketching block, a dozen of chinese white — a shirt, a pocket handkerchief — a Beethoven a Brahms and a Chopin — I stuff them into the bag — I rush downstairs into a hansom — "Where to Sir?" "To Egypt" — he understands and drives me straight to Charing Cross" [London's international train station].
One of Brabazon's favorite stops on these tours (where one hopes he shopped for a change of linen) was Venice, a location he painted often and sometimes in the company of J.S. Sargent. Venice (c.1891) provides a useful comparison to the same scene painted by J.M.W. Turner, whose works (the "color studies" in particular) Brabazon carefully studied at the British Museum and deeply admired throughout his life. Unlike a Turner painting, where the Italian light is often direct and intense, Brabazon shows the waters of Venice under golden billows of late afternoon clouds, sunlight pouring out of them like cream from a Venetian silver service.
Brabazon uses white gouache very sparingly to suggest the campanile opening, the promenade gaslights and their reflections in the water, these touches linking the city silhouette to the sky and making the dark greenish waters appear richer. The gondola is dispatched in four brushstrokes exactly, highlighting the extreme brevity in which the whole is accomplished. Brabazon's paintings often give the impression of Chinese sumi paintings — done with rapid, unedited touches of the brush.
Brabazon's paintings inspire the kind of assent that I feel from an elegant scientific deduction: he has an un-mannered knack for symbolizing visual impressions in the most economical way. The Distant Town (c.1875) briskly represents an unknown Tuscan city from a nearby hill, and seems to demonstrate that belabored realist detail or fussy impressionist brushwork are kinds of artistic stammering, obsessively distorting what is actually a seamless and airy envelope of perception.
Using his favorite colored paper, pre-wetted to diffuse and mingle the brushstrokes as they are applied, Brabazon invokes the enveloping warmth of a hazy Italian afternoon. Depth is established by the clump of foreground bushes, scratched in with burnt umber, contrasted against the snowy semaphore of distant peaks. These two colors mingle in the middle distance as the walls and roofs of the town, articulated by shadow blues borrowed from the mountains and the earthy yellow of the foreground fields; the jostle of buildings amplifies the jagged rhythm of the peaks. He also mixes transparent colors with gouache to give areas of the painting more substance or luminance, just as Turner did. Many of Brabazon's paintings are even less than this: washy puddles of two or three colors, or a horizon described as a quick flock of brushstrokes.
Despite his reluctance to display his works in public and his outwardly affluent retirement, Brabazon was an intently searching and hardworking artist who distilled the direction of Bonington and Turner into a highly effective and innovative style. It's unclear whether or how much he may have been influenced by the watercolors of James McNeill Whistler, exhibited in London from 1884, but both artists made remarkable strides in fusing minimal palettes and strongly abstracted designs with the plein air* experience of landscape. In fact, Brabazon's approach was not equalled until the paintings of the California scene painters of the 1940's. Brabazon anticipated the direction that painting would take by creating some of the most personal, ardent and spontaneous watercolors of the 19th century.
The standard biography is Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, 1821-1906: His Art and Life by C. Lewis Hind (London, 1912), now out of print. The best introduction to HBB's watercolors is the exhibition catalog published by Chris Beetles, Ltd.: Art and Sunshine: The Work of Hercules Brabazon Brabazon by Chris Beetles (Hyway Pennington, 1997). This contains an ample and representative sampling of his works, many for sale at the Beetles Gallery in London.
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