Only an English watercolorist could be so absorbed in his art that he'd risk drowning for it. But such was the case of Paul Sandby, the 18th-century painter of ``The Tide Rises on Briton Ferry,'' a watercolor over graphite that nearly cost him his life. Sandby's afternoon of peril is part of a quiet little collection titled ``English Drawings and Watercolors: 1630-1850,'' at the National Gallery of Art through March 13. The exhibit includes Sandby's inscription on the original mounting of the picture: ``This view pointed out to me by Sir Joseph Bank Bart in the year 1773. He stood by while I made the sketch, his servant holding an umbrella to keep off the glare of the sun from my paper. I was so attentive in making my Drawing Correct, as not to perceive the Tyde approaching, it flowing very fast and following us upwards of a Mile before we was in safety, when looking back to Sand hillocks on which I had sat to sketch, they was underwater, the Tide rising eight feet.''
It is signed P. Sandby, R.A., and exhibited along with his watercolor of a pale aqua sky with silver clouds reflected in the water below, which laps up on the beach, as three men, one with a rolled umbrella, sprint for safety.
The Sandby drama is one of several English landscape watercolors in the show. In another section, on the romantics, there is a blaze of Blakes: William Blake's ``The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea,'' done in 1805 in pen and ink with watercolor over graphite. In it, a many-headed beast faces a dragon with stars in its wings. In ``The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun,'' done in the same medium in 1805, his vision is of a woman with great, heart-shaped gold wings. In ``Job and His Family restored to Prosperity,'' Blake pictures a beatific-looking family , standing under a tree with musical instruments and smiling sheep around them, moon and stars above.
Among the other rare works in this exhibit are Thomas Gainsborough's ``Drover with Calves in a Country Cart,'' and ``Wooded Upland with a Bridge,'' done in graphite with wash. Both are far from the glamorous society portraits that made him famous.
George Romney is represented with ``John Henderson as Falstaff,'' (1780) and ``Lady Hamilton with a Lyre'' (1785), both graphite. John Constable turns up in a chalk with wood drawing of a magnficent elm tree. And in a section on imported artists and style, Sir Anthony van Dyck, the Flemish painter, is represented with a 1630 sepia pen and ink with wash study of ``The Edge of the Wood,'' done in England.
The exhibit is drawn from the National Gallery's permanent collection as well as recent acquisitions and donations on view for the first time. It includes work by J.M. W. Turner and Robert Adam as well as Sir Peter Lely, John Robert Cozens, Thomas Girtin, and Wenceslaus Hollar.