Byline: Brian Sewell
UNUSUALLY well-lit (mercifully too), there are now in Tate Britain's subterranean gallery some wonderful watercolours, ranging over the three centuries that separate Anthony Van Dyck in c.1640 from Edward Burra in 1941. Let us imagine Van Dyck on the hill at Greenwich, looking north over the higgledy-piggledy buildings on the river's bank, to the tall sailing ships tugged hither and yon by the breeze that is gentler with the forest trees that almost block his view. In Greenwich to paint the Queen, or perhaps Inigo Jones, whose about-to-be finished house for her is out of sight to the left, he has broken away to ease his consumptive lungs with fresh air from the east. Let us imagine, too, the rheumatic crumpled Burra, demonic, sardonic and malevolent, discovering in the Dad's Army of Rye in 1941 the buttocks of the ballet dancer, the strut of a Harlem cock-o'-the-walk, and Cocteau's haze of opiates.
Van Dyck's swift true note of a landscape that might, reorganised, find its way into the background of a portrait, is a small thing of morning's light, shadow and atmosphere, a view come upon by chance, not compositionally adjusted but recorded as it was, intentional only in that he had with him his pen and ink, brush and colours, and a phial of water. I can imagine him cleaning and re-forming that brush by putting it in his mouth and withdrawing it through pursed lips. Burra too did this for details, but not for his broad areas of colour -- these were achieved with fat soft sable brushes, No12, capable of holding half a cubic centimetre of wash -- but in all other aspects of Soldiers at Rye, he could hardly be further from Van Dyck. His watercolour is 80 inches from side to side, Van Dyck's is 10; Van Dyck's is informal and private, Burra's formal and intended for an audience, with nothing left to chance or accident, a composition that is punctiliously elaborate, flawlessly conceived and beyond immediate understanding, menacing, portentous, grotesque and decadent; Van Dyck's is a scratch of the pen and the careless dab of the brush, Burra's a thing of great technical control, the layers of wash on absorbent paper translucent, yet deep, rich and intense, the apotheosis of the medium.
Between them, Van Dyck and Burra demonstrate all that needs to be said of watercolour, from the privy note in a sketchbook to the terribilita of fierce emotion, sex, war and ritual, designed in subject, scale and colour to trump any oil painting its neighbour in the greatest of exhibitions.
The same claim of rivalry with oil painting can be made for Samuel Palmer's Dream in the Apennine of 1864; both as a homage to the golden syrup sunsets of Claude, the most influential of 17th-century landscape painters, and as a challenge for Turner's place as the most dominant of the 19th, at least as the greatest living painter of large watercolours.
Where Turner in The Blue Rigi at Sunrise, of 1842, at home in his studio seems to have breathed the rememother bered dawn onto his paper, Palmer made his watercolour take on something of the substance of oil paint by enlisting gouache (opaque body colour), varnish and gum -- yet still the white of the paper lends a blinding glare to the light of the setting sun. In another "exhibition" watercolour the forgotten George Fennel Robson took a more classical technical approach, his watercolour pure, yet, against the dying light, the darkness of the Cuchulin mountains in his Loch Coruisk, on Skye of 1826, has, layer over layer, the intensity of velvet. Robson refers to the rocks and crags of Salvator Rosa with banditti in a Highland plaid, but his composition is more orderly, drama suppressed, Romanticism deflated; it is, nevertheless, compelling if one has one's nose in it -- note the scratching-out of dribbling snow in the top left corner. In comparison the Sturm und Drang of Turner's imagined Battle of Fort Rock, painted a decade earlier, looks rather silly, forced, unconvincing and even a shade off-colour; is it, perhaps, a little grubby, even a little faded? …