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Tate Britain 16 February-21 August 2011

A simple conception, executed with Tate's usual business efficiency, belies the sensitivity of the selection and the occasional brilliance of the hang of this unusual show. Growing out of 'Watercolour in Britain', an exhibition formed by a partnership between Tate, Norwich, the Graves Gallery in Sheffield and the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (which had a rather rushed feel to it when viewed at this last venue), 'Watercolour' at Tare Britain exuded a more confident and frankly luxurious air. It is premised on the idea that watercolour is a misunderstood medium, and this Tate exhibition played on the stereotype and sought to turn it inside out. Juxtapositions such as Samuel Palmer's A Hilly Scene, c1826-8 and Christopher Le Brun's Ziggurat, 2007; Thomas Girtin's The White House at Chelsea, 1800, and Turner's The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, 1842; Eric Ravilious's The Vale of the White Horse, c1939 and Burra's Valley and River, Northumberland, 1972, stood out as prime examples of the medium and made the case. The manipulation of light effects, mastery of perspective, daring viewpoints, blending of colour, and artistic influence are all examined successfully in this exhibition. But while there were many intriguing examples of watercolours (indeed the space resembled an army recruiting ground with phalanxes of infantry assembling to move forward in a constant replacement and replenishment from those which had remained in storage and could be brought out for future shows) the very materiality of watercolour overshadowed some of the theoretical constructs of the exhibition, namely those relating to the amateur status of the watercolour artist and the thesis of its uniquely British identity, both of which frankly felt tangential to the centrality of what actually constituted a watercolour.

The exhibition is broadly chronological and aims to answer the basic questions of what is the substance of watercolour, who were its principal exponents and what was the subject-matter. The first question is deftly handled in a separate interpretation section which showcases the development of this kind of paint, focusing on the portability point through the display of materials, pigments, paint-pots and brushes from Queen Victoria's Winsor and Newton painting satchel to explanations of wove paper. This portability does not, however, explain the necessity dexterity required to paint in watercolour but does bolster the view that these widely available materials were available in almost every gentrified family in Britain over the last 300 years.

All of which gives a technical framework to explore the substantial narrative of 'Watercolour', a narrative which fuels, not surprisingly, more questions than it answers. Progressing through widely thematic and often overlapping sections, the exhibition opens with a suitably sombre-coloured room to explain how watercolour was used in illuminated manuscripts, map-making and miniatures. This section then appears to set a familiar trajectory by focusing on views and perspectives, the usual subject matter of the union of landscape and watercolour but each work here does make a point about the development of watercolour in the period. Wenceslas Hollar's View from Peterborough Tower, Tangier Castle, c1669, for example, prefigures the expertise brought to later topographical watercolours by military draughtsman trained to plot newly acquired lands, picked up, for example, by the Sandbys in the mid-18th century (one of many important watercolourists underrepresented here). The title A Prospect of the Lands and Forts, within ye Line of Communication before Tangier, now in the Possession of the English, drawne from Peterborow Tower by Wenceslaus Hollar, his Majties designer in September Ao 1669 (one of 14 drawings in the series) refers to Britain's military history in the tiny red-coated figures seeking to defend a tiny and unwanted colony, dynastic networking having brought Tangier under the Stuart umbrella as the dowry of Charles II's wife. …