The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880

By Peet, David | Contemporary Review, June 1993 | Go to article overview

The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880


Peet, David, Contemporary Review


'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. …

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