Ibbetson was an English painter, printmaker and writer. The son of a clothier, he was apprenticed to John Fletcher, a ship painter in Hull; in 1775 Ibbetson became a scene-painter there. In 1777 he moved to London, where he worked as a scene-painter and picture restorer. From 1785 he exhibited landscapes, genre scenes and portraits at the Royal Academy. In 1787–8 Ibbetson was personal draughtsman to Col. Charles Cathcart on the first British Mission to Beijing, a voyage that included visits to Madeira, the Cape of Good Hope and Java. His watercolour False Bay, Cape of Good Hope (London, V&A), made on this journey, shows a picturesque roughness of foliage and rustic staffage adapted from his English landscape style. Cathcart’s death forced Ibbetson to return to England (he exhibited an oil painting, untraced, of the Burial of Col. Cathcart in Java at the Royal Academy in 1789); thereafter he lived by painting landscape oils and watercolours, the subjects culled from his frequent tours. He painted occasional portraits throughout his career (e.g. Young Man, 1790; Leeds, Temple Newsam House) and contributed to John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery (e.g. Scene from ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, untraced). In 1789 he stayed with John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, at Cardiff Castle and visited the Isle of Wight in 1790. In 1792 he toured Wales and the surrounding area with the painter John ‘Warwick’ Smith and his companion Robert Fulke Greville, resulting in the publication of his book of engravings, A Picturesque Guide (1793). His oil painting of Aberglasyn: The Flash of Lightning (Leeds, City Art Gallery) evokes the sublimity of the mountainous Welsh terrain; the drama of the storm over Aberglasyn is conveyed by thick impasto and strong chiaroscuro, a way of handling paint that Ibbetson learnt from copying 17th-century Dutch masters while working for a London dealer named Clarke during the late 1770s and early 1780s. He was also an accomplished figure draughtsman and social observer: he showed four humorous paintings of sailors at the Royal Academy in 1800, a topical theme at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1789 he illustrated Modern Times, a moralizing tract by John Trusler, and c. 1790 painted pastoral scenes on plaster for the library ceiling at Kenwood House, London. From 1793 to 1800 he produced illustrations (engraved by J. Tookey) for John Church’s folio A Cabinet of Quadrupeds (1805).
In straitened circumstances, Ibbetson moved in 1798 to Liverpool, where he worked for William Roscoe and Thomas Vernon. From that year until his death he lived in the north, at Edinburgh, Rosslyn and the Lake District, finally settling at Masham, N. Yorks, in 1805. He married his second wife in 1799 and was unsuccessful as an ARA candidate the following year. In 1803, while at Ambleside, he published An Accidence, or Gamut, of Painting in Oils and Water Colours, part autobiography, part technical handbook. Ibbetson’s large Lake District oils, for example At the Ford (Cardiff, National Museum), usually have tree repoussoirs and picturesque rustic figures; they show a sinuous handling of line that has more in common with 17th-century Dutch paintings than the sparer compositions of Romantic art. Ibbetson’s finest achievement is in his highly individual watercolours: blue-toned and delicate, they are characterized by astutely balanced elements of landscape, atmosphere and human incident.
Ibbetson is represented in the following collections: Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, UK; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Royal Academy of Arts Collection, London; Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Manchester City Art Gallery, UK; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK; National Portrait Gallery, London; Norwich Museums, England; Southampton City Gallery, England; Tate Gallery, London; The Faringdon Collection at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, UK; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, amongst others.