Share this page

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Collection Focus – Twickenham by Moonlight

Our Study Gallery houses almost 100 artworks from the Richmond Borough Art Collection, including the subject of this week’s Collection Focus, Henry Pether’s Twickenham by Moonlight. 

Our volunteer Madeleine details the Pether family’s familiarity with moonlit scenes, and its part in the composition of this stunning painting.

For this week’s Collection Focus, I wanted to take a deeper look at Henry Pether’s Twickenham by Moonlight, 1835. As I was sitting in the Study Gallery on a sunny Sunday morning in July, I felt constantly drawn to this particular work which hung directly to my right. The intense moonlit scene which takes centre stage within Pether’s work has stayed at the forefront of my mind ever since.

Henry Pether, Twickenham by Moonlight, 1835, oil on canvas, Richmond Borough Art Collection, Orleans House Gallery.

First thing’s first, it is always important to research the artist behind the works in question. In the unfortunate case of Henry Pether, there is not a lot of information on the artist compared to others which feature within the Richmond Borough Art Collection.

What we do know about Henry Pether is that he was an English landscape painter, son of Abraham Pether and brother of Sebastian Pether, and was active from 1828 until his death in 1865. The Pether family were all known for their moonlit scenes.

Henry Pether’s father, Abraham Pether, also known as ‘Old Pether’, primarily painted river and mountain scenery in a style which has been argued to resemble that of Richard Wilson; an influential 18th-Century Welsh landscape painter. Abraham Pether was a major exhibitor with both the Free Society of Artists and the Incorporated Society of Artists from 1773 to 1791, and at the Royal Academy from 1784 to 1811.

Despite a reputation built on his skill in rendering moonlit images, ‘Old Pether’ was never able to earn enough money to support his large family; he left behind a widow, Elizabeth, and nine children when he died in 1812.

Abraham Pether, Moonlit Estuary Scene, oil on canvas, 62 x 75 cm, The Council House, Chichester City Council.

As mentioned previously, Henry’s brother Sebastian was also known for his moonlit scenes. Unfortunately, Sebastian lived a life constantly besieged by troubles. According to his obituary which featured within The Gentleman’s Magazine, Pether is described as a “Painter of Moonlight Scenery” who had numerous works which “exhibit fine feeling and judgement, with admirable harmony of colour”.[1] However, in the Spring of 1832 his works which were intended for exhibition at the Royal Academy were rejected and Pether was mortified.[2] In 1844, Sebastian Pether passed away suddenly from consumption and, just as his father had done, he left 9 children behind with little money.

Sebastian Pether, River Scene, 1840, oil on canvas, 31.1 x 41.3 cm, Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art.

However, also featured within the obituary entry is a snippet of information on Henry Pether; our artist in question and the brother of Sebastian. The obituary states that, at the time of his brother’s death, Henry Pether was exhibiting his works “of considerable ability” at the Exhibition of Decorative Works.[3] Whilst I could not find much information on the Exhibition of Decorative Works mentioned, the obituary has succeeded in giving us a better, well-rounded understanding of both Sebastian Pether and Henry Pether; Henry Pether was both a talented artist specialising in moonlit landscape scenes as well as a skilled decorative artist.

After delving into the biographical and historical context behind Twickenham by Moonlight (1835), I want to explore a couple of the artistic techniques Pether employs within this work.

Henry Pether, Twickenham by Moonlight, 1835, oil on canvas, Richmond Borough Art Collection, Orleans House Gallery.

Twickenham by Moonlight is ultimately a dramatic and utterly breath-taking piece of artwork. Despite its small dimensions, Pether’s work is not constrained; rather the opposite. Unlike other works I have examined within the Richmond Borough Art Collection such as George Hilditch’s Richmond Bridge from beneath the Railway Bridge (c.1846), there is no framing to this scene. Instead, the soft, rounded clouds gently hug and cradle the moon. In this sense, Pether has chosen to create a subtle frame through the natural elements (clouds) instead of solid, obstructing man-made objects such as bridges or buildings. If the intense chiaroscuro seen here between the dazzling moon and mottled night-sky wasn’t enough to draw our eyes into the painting, Pether’s decision to utilise the clouds as a frame works alongside this ultimately guiding the viewer’s gaze.

Henry Pether, Close-up of sky within Twickenham by Moonlight, 1835, oil on canvas, Richmond Borough Art Collection, Orleans House Gallery.

Building upon the idea that Pether guides our gaze through his work Twickenham by Moonlight (1835), the moon again plays a crucial role. Pether’s incredibly detailed and skilled account of the light and contrasting shadows created by the moon result in a completely naturalistic rendering of the moon’s reflection onto the unstirring, boundless river below.

On first glance, the viewer misinterprets Pether’s intended subject; it is not the moon but the River Thames who takes centre stage in the midground, directly below the moon. Pether is showing off the river in all its glory. The choice of depicting a night-time scene must not be taken lightly. Yes, Pether excelled in moonlit scenes but composing an image of Twickenham and the river would have been incredibly hard for any artist given the hustle and bustle of the day. Here, the daily goings-on of locals are not the subject but rather the natural elements of Twickenham.

Given the open composition, we are sat on the riverbank with soaking up the quiet of the night. Our eyes are guided to this point and from here we are able to choose where we wish to explore within the painting a little more freely.

Henry Pether, Close-up of river within Twickenham by Moonlight, 1835, oil on canvas, Richmond Borough Art Collection, Orleans House Gallery.

After taking a look at Twickenham by Moonlight by Henry Pether, 1835, I feel as if I know the artist a little better. When researching this painting, the main challenge I struggled with was the lack of information on Henry Pether himself. However, there are always roundabout ways in gaining the information you need to move forward with any visual analysis. Of course, the easy way would have been having numerous artist profiles on Henry Pether at my expense which detail both his biographical details as well as his artistic oeuvre. The obituary of Sebastian Pether, Henry’s brother, provided incredibly interesting information and brought to mind how extremely useful obituaries are as credible sources. I highly recommend searching for a person’s obituary, or even for close friends and relatives’ if you are struggling in your own research.

Twickenham by Moonlight (1835) is on display in the Study Gallery at Orleans House Gallery so pop in and have a look for yourself. You’re bound to find more exciting details! It is also located on the gallery’s website here as part of the digital Richmond Borough Art Collection.

Madeleine Luxton

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.

As Madeleine mentions, you can view this painting and the entirety of the Richmond Borough Art Collection on our website at the links above.

You can read all of our volunteer’s contributions to the Collection Focus on our News page. 

Join our volunteer team and you can write about the collection! For this, and other opportunities, visit our Volunteering page.

[1] Sylvanus Urban, “Obituary – Sebastian Pether – Theodore Van Holst,” The Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 176 (July-December 1844): 99.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.