This small painting, created in 1821, is the work of Frederick Richard Lee, the only Royal Academician from Barnstaple. It shows the town from the river, before the improvements and building of Victorian times, and contrasts with the large scale paintings Lee was to go on to create.
Lee was born in Barnstaple in 1798. His father was a prosperous builder, and his brother Thomas was an architect who designed Barnstaple Guildhall and Arlington Court. Frederick enrolled at the Royal Academy at the age of 19 and was elected to full membership in 1834.
His works are typically large scale landscapes, in the romantic tradition. Many are Scottish scenes but he also travelled widely in Britain and the rest of Europe. His paintings were highly popular, and he was in demand to provide backdrops for the animals painted by his contemporaries Thomas Sidney Cooper and Sir Edwin Landseer.
Lee certainly wasn’t a poor, struggling artist — he appears to have been fairly well-off at the end of his career. In the last 15 years of his life, he divided his time between Broadgate House in Pilton, his yacht, and South Africa, where he owned several farms and where he died in 1879.
Unlike his fellow Royal Academicians J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, his work has not retained its popularity, so that he is now relatively unknown. Although Lee’s work was valued at the time for its “truth and simplicity”, Constable said his paintings were only an “imitation of nature” and of little artistic merit.