Item #5000916 A watercolour of a peacock feather with ink sketches of several birds on verso. Sarah STONE, c.

A peacock feather…
A watercolour of a peacock feather with ink sketches of several birds on verso.

London: circa 1790s.

Watercolour on wove paper 425 x 300 mm.

An exquisite watercolour by Sarah Stone

A charming study of a beautiful peacock feather, showing Stone's deftness and artistry in full measure: particularly interesting is her use of trompe l'oeil, a technical effect which is uncommon in her oeuvre despite the fact that she was clearly adept at using it.

A charming study of a beautiful peacock feather, showing Stone's deftness and artistry in full measure: particularly interesting is her use of trompe l'oeil, a technical effect which is uncommon in her oeuvre despite the fact that she was clearly adept at using it.

Stone was one of the finest watercolourists of her generation and made a prodigious contribution to the natural history of the Pacific, Australia and Asia. At her best working on bird paintings (as Christine Jackson has commented "birds were Sarah's favourite subjects"), she was particularly expert with the colourful and vivid specimens flooding into English collections around this time.

The distinctive features and colouring of the feather are that of the Indian peafowl, Pavo cristatus, an identification supported by the fact that Stone is known to have made an undated full study of the bird (sold at Sotheby's in 2000). A peacock was one of three ornithological paintings she exhibited as 'Miss Stone', an Honorary Exhibitor at her first ever Royal Academy show in 1781 (The Royal Academy Exhibitors, p. 275, no. 464). The Peafowl, native to India, was of course, one of the most famous and glamorous of the exotic birds being acclimatised in Europe in this era.

Sarah Stone (c. 1760-1844) was only in her mid-teens when her ability was recognised by Sir Ashton Lever, the owner of the greatest collection of natural history and objects of curiosity assembled in the late eighteenth century. By 1777, at the latest, she was the artist in residence at Lever's magnificent private museum (the 'Holophusicon' or 'Leverian'), "faithfully drawing and painting mounted birds, insects, mammals, fishes, lizards, fossils, minerals, shells and coral from all over the world, as well as ethnographical artefacts brought back from exploratory voyages, including those of Captain Cook" (Jackson, Sarah Stone, p. 9).

Equally importantly, she was later the artist responsible for preparing the illustrations for Surgeon John White's book on New South Wales (1790), one of the great First Fleet accounts and considered the foundation work of Australian ornithology.

Although, as Stone's contemporary John Latham recorded, the Peafowl was by the 1780s relatively "common" in Europe, the painting is almost certain to relate to Lever's museum, which definitely featured a number of larger birds such as ostriches, exotic pheasants and peacocks: indeed, an engraving of Lever published in the European Magazine in 1784 depicts a peacock. Similarly, the famous engraving of the interior of the Museum published by Shaw in 1792 also includes a peafowl.

Stone's output was so well-regarded in her time that when the lottery of the Leverian Museum was first bruited the British government specifically exempted her drawings from the sale, with Lever being "empowered to sell and dispose of the said Museum, and the several pieces composing the same (the Drawings of Miss Sarah Stone only excepted)."

The painting's quality and provenance speak for themselves, and this work is further enhanced by the fact that the verso of the sheet has her distinctive ink studies of three smaller birds. These sketches display Stone's particular confidence in figuring the accurate contours of the birds using a simple ink outlining.

In recent years, partly through the work of Christine Jackson and others, Stone's reputation has been greatly enhanced and her pioneering work recognised. In fact rather unusually, for an artist of her calibre, more completely finished drawings are known than working sketches: it is rare and instructive to see such studies. Sarah Stone's accurate and vibrant use of colour is typified by this wonderful watercolour.

Provenance: From the estate of Patrick Dockar-Drysdale, a descendant of the artist.

Dictionary of Australian Artists (online); Fuller & Finch, Sarah Stone's Unseen Worlds (2023); Royal Academy, Exhibition catalogue (1781); Jackson, Sarah Stone (1998); Shaw, Museum Leverianum (1792-1796).

Condition Report: In very good original condition, with some ageing to edges of paper.

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Condition Report