[1] Winchelsea Churchyard, Sussex, pencil and watercolour, ca.1795
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

[2] Valle Crucis Abbey, North Wales, watercolour, ca.1794-5
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

[3] The Gatehouse of Battle Abbey, Sussex, pencil & watercolour, 1792
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

[4] The North Foreland Lighthouse, Kent , pencil and watercolour, 1780
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Artist of the Month - March 2010


Michael 'Angelo' Rooker ARA (1746 - 1801)

Michael 'Angelo' Rooker is said to have depicted architecture 'as if he loved every brick and stone and was aware of life behind every window'. [1] His watercolours of historic buildings and landscapes certainly possess an understated charm, successfully combining meticulous observation with an eye for incidental detail and a talent for capturing the fleeting effects of light and the changeable British weather.

Rooker was born in London and began his career assisting his father, the engraver and actor Edward Rooker (1724 - 1774). He also studied with Paul Sandby RA who gave him the nickname Michael 'Angelo'. In 1769 Rooker enrolled at the newly opened Royal Academy Schools and made swift progress, being elected Associate Academician the following year. He was never elected to the rank of Academician, however, probably because of his talent as a watercolourist. The Academy elected its members into one of three categories: sculptor, architect or painter. The latter referred exclusively to artists working in oils and although Rooker produced and exhibited oil paintings his skills were best suited to the fluid medium of watercolour.

Each summer Rooker embarked on a sketching tour, seeking out historic sites around Britain to record. He shared in the late eigtheenth-century enthusiasm for ruined abbeys, churches and castles but in his compositions often tempered their 'pleasing melancholy' or dilapidated grandeur with groups of animals or rustic figures going about their daily business oblivious to any high-minded concerns. Rooker used this device in his view of the ruined medieval abbey of Valle Crucis in North Wales [2], which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1794.

As well as travelling to Wales and other parts of the country, Rooker often sketched closer to home. He exhibited Sussex scenes from 1775 and painted the fourteenth-century gatehouse at Battle Abbey on several occasions [3]. This is almost certainly the version that he exhibited at the Academy in 1792 and which caught the eye of the young J. M. W. Turner RA who made several studies of details from Rooker's composition, deliberately emulating the older artist's skilled depiction of dappled light and crumbling masonry.

Rooker favoured evocative and historic locations for sketching but did not exclusively depict medieval ruins. [4] This watercolour shows the North Foreland Lighthouse near Broadstairs in Kent which was built in 1691 and still stands today. Rooker's placement of the tower on the right facing an expanse of brooding clouds, with tiny windblown figures along the cliff top, skilfully emphasises the lonely atmosphere of the windswept coastline and the importance of the lighthouse in severe weather conditions.

All these works can be seen in the Tennant Room until 16 May 2010 as part of the display, Eighteenth-Century Watercolours from the Royal Academy Collection.