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The great age of British watercolours 1750-1880.

'OH, you are quite a lady, Miss Jane!' Thus was Jane Eyre elevated in Bessie's eyes, on the strength of a couple of waltzes and a 'landscape in watercolours' over the chimney piece. There were three hundred paintings at the Royal Academy in an exhibition entitled 'The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880', conceived by Andrew Wilton, Keeper of the British Collection at the Tate Gallery, and sponsored by Martini & Rossi Ltd., and together they showed the immense range of a medium frequently dismissed as a pastime for provincial governesses and the 'superabundance of bored young ladies requiring drawing masters'.

The art of the period which is the subject of this exhibition falls roughly into three phases. During the first period -- artists born in the first quarter of the eighteenth century -- the painters' techniques developed from monochromatic wash in bistre indian and other inks through brown foregrounds and blue backgrounds (a common technique borrowed from the Netherlands) to more subtle gradations of tints. The subject matter developed from commissions, such as those carried out by Hollar for Lord Arundel, to painting topography for pleasure and also producing imaginary scenes. In the latter field, Alexander Cozens was the great innovator. His experiments in landscape are often based on the sketches which he made during a trip to Italy, but the boundaries between the actual and the imaginary are blurred. 'A Rocky Island', painted about 1785, shows how he developed his technique, a principle no different from that of Turner fifty years later, although Cozens's use of colour is merely an extension of the drawing and monochrome wash technique of his time. His method, according to one observer, was to mark his paper with 'accidentally large blots and loose flourishes', from which he would develop his forms and ideas.

In England, the recognition of watercolour as a medium came through the efforts of Paul Sandby, a co-founder of the Royal Academy in 1769. Sandby was an eclectic and not exclusively a painter in watercolour, and his approach was very different from that of Cozens, developed as it was through Sandby's experience as a draughtsman to the Ordnance Survey. Gainsborough recommended Sandby to a client who wanted a landscape as 'the only Man of Genius . . . who has employed his pencil that way' -- he was accurate but poetic, and his unpretentious style was highly influential for many years. It is instructive to compare the Cozens works with Sandby's 'Windsor -- The Curfew Tower' of 1865, in which the meticulous drawing is shaded out with neutral wash before the colour is finally applied.

Landscape, it should be observed at this point, was a word only recently introduced into the English language. In 1606 Henry Peacham noted in his 'Art of Drawing' that 'landtskip' was a Dutch term, a comment repeated in Norgate's 'Miniatura' -- 'Landscape, an art soe new in England, and so lately come ashore, as all the language in our fower seas cannot find it a name, but a borrowed one -- the Dutch'.

Two important treatises were published in or shortly after 1770. 'The Art of Drawing and Painting in Watercolour' was the first practical work on the subject which dealt with the techniques and materials employed, and rules of composition and taste were set out in a poem 'On Landscape Painting' composed by the Revd. William Gilpin, who suggested inter alia that enthusiasm for nature must be tempered by study of its details and that harmony of the parts of a picture should determine the character of the whole. Gilpin also published guides to the English countryside, which rapidly became the Bible of the Picturesque, a movement which Sydney Smith summed up in his comment 'the parson's horse is beautiful, the curate's horse is picturesque'.

Topographical recording was not confined to England. The very portable nature of the materials used in watercolour painting made it an ideal medium for those travelling abroad on the Grand Tour to record their impressions of foreign places and events. The great patrons demanded not only views of Italy, but also of the newly-fashionable Switzerland. When Richard Chandler mounted his expedition to Asia Minor, he took with him the painter William Pars, who later went to Switzerland and Italy with Lord Palmerston. The alpine views which resulted from that journey were shown at the Royal Academy in 1771, and were the means of introducing the Alps to public taste. The clear light which plays over 'The Ruins of the Port of Aegina' of 1766 reveals much detail, but handled in such a way that the result does not seem unduly cluttered.

When Pars was in Rome there were several other English artists who formed a small community there. John 'Warwick' Smith was a protege of the Earl of Warwick, who had sent the painter to study in Rome in 1776 and maintained him there for five years. With Pars and Cozens, Thomas Jones and Francis Towne, he went on sketching expeditions throughout middle Italy. On one outing near Naples, Jones had just remarked of the landscape that it only needed some bandits to liven it up: on turning the corner the group encountered 'three ugly looking fellows dressed in the fantastic garb of the Sbirri di Campagna, with long knives, cutting up a dead jackass . . .', whereupon the timid Towne fled.

Towne's visit to Switzerland and Italy in 1780-1 produced his strongest work -- nothing which he did later matched the sharply observed alpine scenes to be seen in for example 'The Head of Lake Geneva' and such Italian visions as 'Rome -- Gateway of the Villa Ludovisi'. His pen and pencil outlines were carefully but not overwhelmingly etched, and filled out with flat colour washes. Combined with his ability to frame a subject and to pare down the detail to the bare essentials, his paintings have a remarkable force. Another painter much influenced by Sandby, Michael 'Angelo' Rooker, employed a toning-down of colour which seems at first sight to be a reversion to the monochromatic washes of the earlier styles, but in his case is a carefully controlled exploitation of muted tonal values -- compare 'Entrance to a Park', where detailed trees frame an empty centre, with the distant building only hinted at, with 'Gatehouse to Battle Abbey', in which the same framing technique is employed, but here leading to a fully worked-out focus.

Differentiation of colour marked the work of the second generation of painters born between 1725 and 1760 such as J. R. Cozens and Thomas Gainsborough. John Robert Cozens, the son of Alexander, was the outstanding figure of this period. He had visited Italy in 1776, and went again in 1782 in the train of the eccentric William Beckford, during which tour he produced the two exhibited paintings of the Great Temples at Paestum. Gainsborough was less interested in reproducing existing scenes than depicting landscape in a free and subjective way -- his sketchy style was the antithesis of the Dutch realistic approach which he thought unsuitable in this field.

The end wall of Gallery Four juxtaposes three mighty originals --Blake, Palmer and Martin. William Blake was not much appreciated by his contemporaries, and his extraordinary imagination found few admirers until the efforts of Swinburne and Rossetti brought his visionary works to the attention of a wider public. He was solidly grounded in all techniques, although he found that engraving and etching were better adapted to expressing his ideas than oil or watercolour. 'Homer and the Ancient Poets' shows him as the historic painter who had studied Michaelangelo (through engravings) and mediaeval sculpture, and his sinuous drawing and subtle colouring produce an ethereal picture.

Samuel Palmer was an admirer of Blake, although, unlike Blake, his technical facility and fertility of imagination were greater in his earlier period. He produced ravishing work while at Shoreham, a then obscure Kent village, in which visionary years he wished to depict 'earth spiritualised'. 'The Bright Cloud' and 'Moonlit Scene with a Winding River' paraphrase the 'mystic and dreamy glimmer' which he found in Blake's works. The glaring orange of 'Harvesters by Firelight' from the Mellon Collection in Washington is startling by contrast, and is perhaps an unfortunate inclusion since scholarly doubts have recently been cast on its attribution. 'A Towered City' in Room Six is from a later period, and is more calculated in its effects (it was an exhibition work) but rich with applied textures.

John Martin specialised in epic panoramic pieces, in which figures are dwarfed by the immense land -- and sea -- scapes against which the painter sets them. 'The Destruction of Pharaoh's Host' is hugely ambitious in scope and stunning in execution.

In contemplating the work of these three giants, we should pause to consider the difficulties which artists of this period encountered in handling their materials. They mixed their own colours (their recipes usually kept very closely guarded secrets), and relied on repetition of successful experiments for the consistency of their output, until colour makers like Reeve started to produce more reliable paints commercially. Paper too was a problem -- most were inadequate to handle the delicate effects inherent in the watercolour techniques, papers often being under-or over-absorbent and uneven through single sheets yielding patchy results. In time great improvements were introduced by paper-makers like Watman, whose efforts put at the disposal of the artistic community in England better basic materials than were available to fellow-painters abroad.

Watercolours were widely exhibited from about 1760 onward, appearing regularly at the Society of Artists of Great Britain. However, in the early years of the nineteenth century, many painters in watercolours became dissatisfied with their treatment at the Royal Academy. They complained that institution was so obsessed with the medium of oil that their contributions were always hung badly, and that the rules of the Academy prevented anyone who did not paint almost exclusively in oils from becoming an Academician. Getting no satisfaction from the Academy, they set up in 1804 the Society of Painters in Water Colours, which held its first exhibition in the following year. Its success brought a number of imitators -- the exclusivity of the new Society led to the formation of the Associated Artists in Water Colour in 1807, and when the latter reformed in 1832 as the 'New Society of Painters in Miniature and Watercolours' the original group became known as the 'Old Watercolour Society'.

The leading lights of the Old Society -- Cristall, Glover, Barrett and Varley -- were well represented in the exhibition. Joshua Cristall, who is considered to be one of the most original figures in the group, was an accomplished draughtsman who included more figures in his landscapes than most of his contemporaries. It is instructive to compare 'The Groves of Accademia -- Plato Teaching', all muted tones and relaxed, natural human figures, with 'Nymphs and Shepherds Dancing'. The latter is much more heavily worked, the colours richer and the dancers more stiffly posed. His attention to detail is typical of the painters in this group, and he made many studies of nature, such as the 'Study of a Beech Tree Stem' which dated from 1803. Cristall served as President to the Old Society three times between 1816 and 1831, but left the mainstream of developments when he went to live in the Wye Valley for twenty years.

John Glover's major contribution to the history of watercolour was a technical invention -- a method of splitting a brush into a multitude of fine points, by which detail of foliage and water effects could be produced with minimal effort (an artificial approach which Constable condemned). His finished paintings are apt to be characterised by a rather niggling effect, and the frequent description of him as 'the English Claude' should better be applied to George Barrett, whose drawing was freer and whose affinity with Claude rather more obvious. John Varley was much in demand as a teacher, and contributed pictures in great quantity to the Old Society's exhibitions, a quantity which enables one to perceive that his work was somewhat mechanical and repetitive, although never less than competently put together.

John Sell Cotman was an outsider who applied to become a Member of the Old Society in 1806 and was rejected. Granted associate status in 1825, he never became a full Member. He was a native of Norwich, and returned there after a struggling existence in London as a young unknown. He made three visits to Yorkshire in 1803-5, which inspired him to produce some of his best work. 'The Drop Gate, Duncombe Park' and 'Greta Bridge' both exhibit his individual techniques which he summed up in his advice to his son -- 'Draw sternly and true, leave out but add nothing'. Much is left out of 'Bedlam Furnace', but the impressionistic wash which results succeeds in conveying a remarkable amount of detail.

Cotman was a member of the Norwich Society of Artists, founded by John Crome in 1803 to 'meet and talk about art or anything else'. Exhibitions started in 1805, and the talents of some three generations of local artists are generally known as the Norwich School of painters. Like the London-based Societies, there were differences of opinion, leading in this case to a short-lived secession in 1816. The last exhition was in 1833 -- a remarkable achievement for a provincial Society to have lasted thirty years through the period of the Napoleonic Wars, not matched by other similar groups in much richer towns and cities.

Also hung here at the Royal Academy is 'A Shady Lane, Tunbridge Wells' by John Middleton, the youngest and possibly the most talented member of the Norwich School. In his watercolour work Middleton painted in light broad washes far removed from the contemporary Victorian taste for overloaded detail, and his piece, dating from 1847, now looks remarkably modern.

The third generation of painters liberated watercolour from linear drawing, a new freedom visible particularly in the work of Thomas Girtin and Joseph Mallord William Turner (and their younger contemporaries such as Bonington). Girtin and Turner were born in the same year, 1775, knew each other well as young men and were both pupils and proteges of Dr. Thomas Monro, a physician who was also a talented painter and a connoisseur. He gathered round him a wide circle of young talents known as the 'Munro Boys', who learned the ropes by making copies of their patron's vast collection of old masters. Girtin and Turner worked together at first, the former drawing the outlines and the latter colouring them in, but soon their paths diverged. Girtin quickly made his individuality of style clear in his application of small details to large washes of colour, evoking vividly the atmosphere of smoke above townscapes and the haze of distance in landscapes.

Turner took longer to establish his unique style -- he dispensed with the drawing of outlines and the by-now customary grey underwash, treating his subjects with extraordinary freedom. He travelled widely and often, and by the time of his visit to Italy in 1819 his pictures fused colour light and space into a whole expressive of the inner reality rather than the surface appearance.

A number of new members revitalised the Old Society in 1810-12, and rescued it from the 'brownish Claudian rut into which it was falling' (in Graham Reynolds's trenchant phrase). Outstanding among these was Peter de Wint who, with Copley Fielding and David Cox, dominated the scene for the next twenty years. Peter de Wint was one of the 'Monro Boys', and in that patron's collection found and admired the work of Girtin. His inspiration was the flat landscape of Lincolnshire, not favoured by other painters of his day or in his field, but perhaps attracting him because of his Dutch ancestry. He had a long career, during which his style changed very little (which makes his pictures hard to date), but it is unmistakable through his use of rich colours on a full brush, and his use of the knife to scrape out highlights while the colour was still wet.

David Cox also used full brushes with rich colours, but his effects are more sketchy -- his contemporaries noted a 'careless haste' in his work. He favoured rough paper in which hollows sparkled with light, and flecks of material could be turned to advantage, especially in landscapes where Cox noted: 'I just put wings to them and then they fly away as birds'. His 'Landscape with Sunset' leaves half the paper uncoloured, with striking effect.

Copley Fielding dominated more by position (he was President of the Old Society for 25 years) and productivity (he presented 1,671 drawings to the Society during his 54 year membership) than through any great originality of technique or imagination. When his wife fell ill, he took her to Brighton to recuperate, and from that time fell in love with the sea, producing more seascapes than any of his fellow artists.

Although he died at the early age of twenty-seven, the French-trained Richard Parkes Bonington was a major figure in all fields -- he specialised in a luminosity which was rarely equalled by his contemporaries and his effects were much admired by Corot. After his first exhibition in London in 1826 the Literary Gazette was ecstatic -- '. . . here are pictures which would grace the foremost name in landscape art. Sunshine, perspective, vigour, a fine sense of beauty in disposing of colours . . .'. His crisp brushwork and spontaneity is evident in 'Paris from Pere Lachaise' and 'Verona, Castelbanco Tomb'. His influence was far-reaching, noticeably in 'Pavilion de Flore' by Thomas Shotter Boys and the exhibited works of Callow and Scarlett Davies.

Whistler was a very cosmopolitan figure -- American-born, he was brought up in Russia and then educated at West Point Military Academy. After studying art in Paris he settled in England and was then elected to the Society of British Artists in 1884, becoming its President three years later. He drew this analogy between painting and music in his 'Ten o'clock Lecture' in 1885:

'Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. The artist is born to pick and choose, and group with science those elements, that the result may be beautiful -- as the musician gathers his notes and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony . . .'

William Gilpin, in the poem 'On Landscape Painting' referred to earlier, concludes that finished work should be exhibited so that it could be judged impartially by men of taste. In the recent Royal Academy exhibition Gallery 6 collected together a substantial quantity of work painted specifically to be exhibited. Much of it is disappointingly heavy and overworked compared with the pictures in the previous five rooms -- the evident intention was to make these works resemble oils and the overworking loses the informality, spontaneity and luminosity which is so much the hallmark of watercolour techniques. In this room there were several works by John Frederick Lewis, who was praised by Edward Lear for his 'exquisite and conscientious workmanship'. He spent ten years in Cairo observing the eastern scene, and 'The Hareem' was a huge public success when it was shown at the Old Society in 1850. It was hailed as a new departure for watercolour painting, in that the transparency of the medium was reduced by mixing Chinese white with the pigments to make them opaque. With his refined and delicate brush-strokes, Lewis was able to produce minutely detailed effects quite the opposite of the breadth of vision of such predecessors at Cotman and Girtin and so helped to bring the traditions of watercolour into a new age.


Thames and Hudson have published The Great Age of British Watercolours by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles, (ISBN: 3-7913-1254-5). Although this book is intended to accompany the Royal Academy's Exhibition, its lucid introduction and wealth of illustrations will long make it a valuable work for anyone interested in British Art. The short biographical entries on the artists are excellent. This exhibition will be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until 25 July. Anyone planning to see it there would be well advised to read this splendid book before they go.
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Title Annotation:exhibit at the Tate Gallery
Author:Peet, David
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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