1800 - 1880
Sandgate Castle by Moonlight

Oil on canvas, signed lower right
Image size: 36 x 24 inches (91.5 x 61 cm)
Handmade gilt frame


‘Fine Marine Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours from the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries’, 13th June 1978, Sotheby’s. Catalogue number 184.


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Painted in 1872 by Henry Pether, this moonlit scene features Sandgate, a southern English coastal town found in the county of Kent. This specific viewpoint is from Radnor Cliff looking down onto the beach below. In the centre of the composition is the fort and surrounding walls of Sandgate Castle.

Sandgate Castle was built in 1539 by Henry VIII to defend the lower shore of  Sandgate, as part of the second major coastal defence scheme to be implemented in Southern England. Nowadays the Castle no longer looks like this as parts of the outer expanses have been lost to the sea over the centuries. The castle had begun to suffer damage from the sea by the early 17th century, and by the middle of the 19th century the receding coastline had reached the edge of the castle walls. Presently, only the circular keep survives at the top of the beach.

High on the cliffs behind the beach we can see several Martello Towers. Between 1805 and 1808 the British government built these small artillery forts. Their purpose was to defend the most vulnerable coastal areas against the expected invasion by the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Between the castle and towers lies a busy town populated with fields of sheep, night time fishermen and castle guards. Pether has achieved remarkable detail in every part of this work – note the spires of a church sticking up on the horizon, the layer of dense smoke accumulating above the town’s chimneys and the weary travellers walking along the sandy coastal road.

The Artist

Henry Pether (1800–1880) was an English landscape painter famous for his depiction of moonlit scenes of 19th century Britain, Paris, and Venice. Born into a family of artists, Henry was the son of Abraham Pether (1756-1812), a talented landscape painter originally from Chichester, recognised for his skill in depicting moonlit scenes.

His pictures attracted much admiration, earning for him the sobriquet of “Moonlight” Pether. Abraham had another son who became a painter, Sebastian, who was also influenced by his father’s artistic interests and he too painted moonlit scenes. Unlike his father and brother however, Henry favoured actual scenes over the more artificial compositions of his father and brother.

His works convey an evocative sense of poetry and realism, such as in the present lot, with great attention to detail and dramatic composition.

Between 1828 and 1862 Henry Pether exhibited at the Royal Academy. He also exhibited at the British Institution and with the Royal Society of British Artists. His works are among the collections of the Tate, the City of London, Royal Museums Greenwich, Government collections, National Trust, Hastings Museum, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Yale Centre for British Art.

Pether lived in the Camden and Clapham boroughs in London, and Southampton. In 1837, he was described as a surveyor, engineer, artist, and an architect when he was an inmate in a debtor’s prison in London. He applied for patents for lamps, architectural materials, and tiles, the latter of which was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. At that time, he was married to Sarah and had three children: Fanny, Harry, and Kate who ranged from nine to fourteen years of age. The family lived at Kennington in 1851.

He died on Stockwell Green in London on 20 February 1880, a few days after his 80th birthday. Papers, images, and other documentation of Pether’s works are held at the Frick Art Reference Library.