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Wednesday 15 April 2020

Collection Focus – George Hilditch

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing you a range of articles about the gallery, from looking at the Richmond Borough Art Collection and our exhibitions, to some of the makers featured in our shop.

We’re starting with a focus on the Richmond Borough Art Collection. This post, written by our volunteer Madeleine, features a visual analysis of a popular work by George Hilditch, ‘Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge’.

Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge by George Hilditch, c.1846

George Hilditch was a British 19th-Century painter who was born in 1803 and died in 1857. He is relatively unknown but the paintings attributed to his name would indicate that he focused on landscapes. The Orleans House Gallery is fortunate to house 15 of his works which depict the landscapes of Richmond and Twickenham as subjects.

Whilst there is not much information on the artist himself, the painting, ‘Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge’ 1846, consists of incredible yet subtle detail making it one of the most interesting works within the collection that I have found. ‘Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge’ is essentially a landscape work with the depiction of a few genre figures.

Painting during the 19th-Century was completely varied; British Romanticism, which had laid its roots during the late 1700s, had remained a popular genre for artists, and historic and academic paintings began to gain popularity as the century unfolded. However, with the decline of religious painting during the mid-1800s, British artists were taking more of an interest in depictions of everyday life than ever before, and genre painting resurfaced as a popular form of visual art. For example, William Powell Frith (1819-1909), who is noted for his genre works, painted highly detailed scenes of social life which included members of all classes of society.

Genre painting dominated the fields of Low Country artists until the 18th-Century and typically portrayed ordinary people engaged in everyday activities. A key aspect of a genre work was that no identity, either collectively or individually, could be placed onto the depicted figures. It is true to say that Hilditch’s work definitely adheres to this notion. The figures within his work are unimpressive, inconspicuous and are going about their daily activities. They are not dressed in luxurious and rich attire, but plainly clothed. They are small in scale and all reside within the shadows of his work.

Whilst I do not believe that ‘Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge’ can be classified as a genre painting, it cannot be boxed into the definition of a pure landscape painting due to these discussed non-identifiable figures. It must be said that the choice of including these figures would not have been made carelessly; they bring life and vitality to the piece and their inclusion ultimately points towards the social aspect of the space. Without these seemingly unimportant members of the painting, Hilditch’s work would not have succeeded in its three-dimensionality.

The composition of ‘Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge’, however, is incredibly effective in drawing our attention to his desired subject. In short, it is the organised and structured nature composition of the work which, effectively, visually conveys the significance of Richmond Bridge both within the painting and in everyday life. The overarching sentiment that pours out of Hilditch’s work is tranquillity and serenity.

‘Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge’ is deeply three-dimensional and is successful in portraying a variety of scenes within the entirety of the work. The figures depicted by the artist all reside within the foreground of the composition and are minute in comparison to the overall subject matter, further emphasising that they are not the intended primary focus. Hilditch lends some importance to the figures in the work by placing them at the foreground of his work. Ultimately, however, it is Richmond Bridge which stands out as the significant focal point of the piece. Alongside this, the viewer’s eyes are guided naturally to the centre, and primary focus, of the painting through a variety of other ways which Hilditch cleverly employed. One, as previously mentioned, is through the structured composition.

The second means, and what I believe to be the most effective, was through the use of the railway bridge as a frame. As a viewer, we are also made to feel like a participant. The railway bridge is truly above us, and this sentiment is strengthened by the bridge being visible on both sides of the canvas as well as at the top; acting as the frame itself. You can almost hear the train going at full speed above you! The physical space by which the railway bridge assumes within the work takes us right to the centre of the work, as would looking through a tunnel towards the light – we are instantly zoomed into the most significant aspect of the painting. Here, Hilditch works effectively with the effect of light and dark spaces to the extent where the viewer can easily overlook the figures within the foreground despite their brightly coloured attire and residence in the foreground.

The final way in which Hilditch focuses on Richmond Bridge is through his choice of colours. Hilditch makes use of both bright and dark colours – neither of which are necessarily subdued in any way -, and the power of contrast. Simply put, the eye easily glides towards Richmond Bridge in the centre of the work as it is the most bright object on the canvas. To do so, Hilditch made sure to portray the bridge in a rich off-white oil paint; a true match to the physical material of Richmond Bridge, portland stone, and contrasting this with both the greenery of the trees and the framing quality of the railway bridge. Although Hilditch’s sky is a brilliant and radiant cerulean blue, his powdery, fluffy clouds dilute the sky’s starkness. The blue that remains untouched by the clouds, alongside the trees and few buildings in the background (enhanced by the depth of the composition), further acts as a frame for Richmond Bridge, emphasising its importance.

Ultimately, ‘Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge’ is full of incredible detail and it is only once you take note of the way by which he composed the scene you can truly appreciate how fascinating the painting is. This work is a true example of how looking deeper into works of art and employing visual analysis can unlock insightful knowledge on the intricate organisation of artwork generally, through composition, colour and subject matter, despite a limited knowledge of the painter.

Madeleine Luxton

Madeleine Luxton, Gallery Volunteer at Orleans House Gallery.

I have recently graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in History and History of Art. I am thoroughly enjoying my time exploring the art world and have already become enamoured with one of London’s hidden gems – Orleans House Gallery! Volunteering at Orleans House Gallery has allowed me to meet fellow art enthusiasts and to broaden my passion in helping the art world become much more accessible. My favourite artists are Edouard Manet, Diego Rivera, Robert Rauschenberg and Tracey Emin.

‘Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge’  is featured as part of our exhibition, Beyond the Frame. You’ll be able to read about the artists in the exhibition with our ‘In Conversation’ series of articles coming here soon.

You can also view the entire borough collection online, at the Collection link on our main navigation bar, or by clicking here.

Want to write our next post? Become a volunteer with us and get involved – you can discover more about volunteering here.