William Daniell was born in 1769, ten years before the death of his father. It was his uncle Thomas who was instrumental in his later upbringing. Thomas, who began his working life as a coachbuilder and coach-painter, attended the schools at the Royal Academy in his early twenties.
He was one of the earliest employers of the aquatinting process, and had also some success as a painter. It was his decision to tour India with his nephew, then aged 15, that changed both their lives. For the next nine years the Daniells made extensive trips around the whole sub-continent, as well as to China and Java. They used a camera obscura to record the magnificent buildings of India, most of them little known in Britain at the time. The results were some of the finest illustrated volumes of the age, Oriental Scenery.
Massive folios, 60cm tall, they sold for the equally enormous price of £210, and made both uncle and nephew wealthy and well-known men. Just one of the aquatint plates can now fetch in excess of £5000.
The publication process took fourteen years, although other works occupied William’s time in the intervening period, for example engraving the plates for his brother Samuel’s books on Africa and Ceylon. But in 1813, he began the other major adventure of his life. A Voyage Round Great Britain is still possibly the most ambitious illustrated description of the British coastline.
Daniell teamed up with a young author, Richard Ayton (Daniell’s own prose was plodding, if not turgid), whose lively descriptions and real feeling for the poor and suffering make the text far more than a mere travelogue.
They commenced the journey together at Land’s End, but by the time (part way through the 1814 tour) they had reached Whitehaven in Cumbria they had split for good, and Ayton’s journey finished at Wigtown. The whole of the rest of the journey was completed by Daniell between 1815 and 1823, with publication of the final volume in 1825.
Daniell was involved in all stages of the production process. He painted the original watercolours, again with the help of a camera obscura, which improved accuracy and reduced the exaggerations of mountain height and steepness so beloved of the Romantic artists.
He then oversaw the aquatinting of the painting, a complex and time-consuming labour including etching with acid onto a wax-covered copper plate. Colour washes were applied to the resulting print; the Voyage prints became particularly sought-after for the delicacy and beauty of their soft, misty land- and sea-scapes.
Innes Macleod, Sailing on Horseback; William Daniell and Richard Ayton in Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway, T.C. Farries and Co, Dumfries, 1988
I Bain, William Daniell’s A Voyage Round Great Britain 1814-1825. A note on its production and the subsequent history of the aquatint plates…The Bodley Head, London, 1954.
T Sutton, The Daniells, Artists and Travellers. The Bodley Head, London, 1954.
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