Why we lead the world in wa­ter­colours

From Turner’s lu­mi­nous paint­ings on a grand scale to Towne’s metic­u­lous land­scapes and Rav­il­ious’s soft evo­ca­tions of the South Downs, Huon Mal­lalieu ap­plauds the en­dur­ing legacy of the great Bri­tish wa­ter­colour

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From Turner and Towne to Rav­il­ious, Huon Mal­lalieu ap­plauds the en­dur­ing legacy of the Bri­tish wa­ter­colour

When, years ago, I told the great Old Master dealer David Car­ritt that I was writ­ing on the english Wa­ter­colour School, his re­ac­tion was: ‘Oh, dear—what a dead end!’ I’ve never been cer­tain whether he meant a dead-end for my ca­reer or that the school had been one—or per­haps both. I couldn’t com­ment in my own case; as to the school, I take his point, but must dis­agree.

Cer­tainly, it is true that, with no­table ex­cep­tions, wa­ter­colour painters have never again reached the heights of achieve­ment and in­flu­ence of their largely english fore­bears in the cen­tury from 1750 to 1850. how­ever, those achieve­ments mean that wa­ter­colour stands with po­etry and nov­el­writ­ing as the glo­ries of the coun­try’s cul­ture.

Fur­ther­more, the school’s di­rect in­flu­ence on the Con­ti­nent and be­yond be­tween 1814 and 1850, and then at a dis­tance on the Im­pres­sion­ists and post-im­pres­sion­ists, is a last­ing legacy.

It is tra­di­tion­ally known as the ‘english’ School, be­cause, al­though it had Flem­ish and Dutch roots, and French, Swiss and other draughts­men played an im­por­tant part in the 18th cen­tury, the ma­jor­ity of its mem­bers were english and it devel­oped a recog­nis­able, english, char­ac­ter. In the

19th cen­tury, the Scots and Ir­ish in­creas­ingly made im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions, but, like the English lan­guage, the school blended its var­i­ous in­gre­di­ents into a dy­namic whole.

Na­tive tra­di­tions of il­lu­mi­na­tion, minia­ture, heraldic and topo­graph­i­cal paint­ing were ba­sic to the mix, as, im­por­tantly, were mil­i­tary draw­ings of cas­tles, ports and ships, of­ten with coloured washes, by sur­vey­ors and of­fi­cial draughts­men from the time of Henry VIII on­wards. Dürer was one of the first to use pure wa­ter­colour to paint land­scape de­tails for their own sake and he did so when trav­el­ling as wa­ter­colour equip­ment then, as now, was easy to carry. Lit­tle more was needed than a brush—squir­rel or sable hair tied in a quill or even just a chewed twig —a sec­ond raven’s quill as a pen for out­line and home­made colours stored in mus­sel shells, which also served as mix­ing pans.

Dur­ing the later 16th cen­tury, artists fol­lowed Dürer’s ex­am­ple on voy­ages to the New World, most no­tably the Huguenot Jac­ques le Moyne de Morgues and John White, whose images of Na­tive ‘Vir­gini­ans’ long af­ter­wards gave Punk Bri­tan­nia the Mo­hi­can hair­cut.

In The Gen­tle­man’s Ex­er­cise (1612) and The Com­pleat Gen­tle­man (1622), Henry Peacham gave a fur­ther rea­son for the medium to ap­peal to am­a­teurs: ‘Oyle nor oyle-colours, if they drop on ap­par­ell, wil not out; when wa­ter-colours will with the least wash­ing’—cer­tainly a con­sid­er­a­tion for a high-born am­a­teur in an age of silks and lace.

How­ever, al­though one of the strengths of the school was that the medium at­tracted am­a­teurs who be­came pa­trons and col­lec­tors, the later per­cep­tion that it was a de­mure pas­time for maiden ladies was far from ac­cu­rate. In the 16th and again in the 18th

‘The medium at­tracted am­a­teurs who be­came pa­trons and col­lec­tors

and 19th cen­turies, the typ­i­cal am­a­teur was male and quite prob­a­bly a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer.

Wash draw­ings such as the pic­ture map of Dover dated 1538, prob­a­bly by Henry VIII’S sur­veyor Sir Richard Lee, which is in the Bri­tish Li­brary, are al­ready at­trac­tive land­scape wa­ter­colours. So too are those by Dutch artists in Kent in the early 1660s, but the pur­pose of the Tu­dor draw­ings was de­fence against in­va­sion; the Dutch may have had an op­po­site mo­ti­va­tion, given their at­tack on the Med­way towns in 1667.

The Draw­ing Room at the Tower of Lon­don was ex­actly that and the broth­ers Thomas (1721–98) and Paul Sandby (1731– 1809), two of the founders of the Royal Academy, worked there as mil­i­tary sur­vey­ors.

By the mid 18th cen­tury, it had be­came ap­par­ent that army and navy of­fi­cers needed pro­fes­sional train­ing and, in 1768, Paul was ap­pointed chief draw­ing master at the Royal Mil­i­tary Academy, Wool­wich. He had a clear, com­mu­ni­ca­ble style and his in­flu­ence on his pupils there and else­where was such that even if he was not ‘the fa­ther of English wa­ter­colour’ as tra­di­tion­ally dubbed, the idea was not en­tirely far-fetched.

Travel fur­ther boosted the fash­ion for wa­ter­colour, as to­pog­ra­phers pro­vided views of an­tiq­ui­ties and coun­try houses to own­ers and print-mak­ers and artists trav­el­ling on the Con­ti­nent paid their way by pro­vid­ing Grand Tourists with sou­venirs. Nat­u­rally, they didn’t have this mar­ket to them­selves, the Ger­man Hack­ert, the Swiss Du­cros, slightly later the Ital­ian Lusieri and many oth­ers were quite as ac­com­plished as the English.

How­ever, very few artists of any na­tion­al­ity raised these equiv­a­lents of hol­i­day snaps to the heights achieved by the two great­est, John Robert Cozens and Fran­cis Towne. Cozens, fa­mously de­scribed by Con­sta­ble as ‘all po­etry’, is the master of gen­tle but heart-stop­ping me­lan­choly. Of­ten, he achieves his ef­fects with very few de­tails. They are un­nec­es­sary; we see what he means us to see.

In 1781, while re­turn­ing from Italy, Towne made two draw­ings of the source of the Ar­vey­ron in the Swiss Alps. In his English

Wa­ter-colours (1933), Lau­rence Binyon, Keeper of Draw­ings at the Bri­tish Mu­seum as well as au­thor of For the Fallen, wrote that they are built up of curve against curve and, in the one il­lus­trated here: ‘The glacier with its crawl­ing ice and blue-lipped cav­ern is here the main fea­ture of the de­sign; and the crushed chaos in which it ends, and the dragon-like form of its de­scent are pic­tured with a sense of enor­mous la­tent men­ace.’

More than 20 years later, Turner painted the same sub­ject. By com­par­i­son, Towne’s ver­sion might date from the 1930s.

Al­though there were prob­a­bly more English than Con­ti­nen­tal wa­ter­colour painters in 1790, the dis­tance be­tween them in technique and achieve­ment was not that great. How­ever, for so­cial and po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, by 1814, it was very great in­deed. The pop­u­lar­ity of wa­ter­colours among am­a­teurs —civil­ian, as well as mil­i­tary—brought pa­tron­age and cre­ated an en­thu­si­as­tic mar­ket.

More than two decades of war with Rev­o­lu­tion­ary and Napoleonic France de­prived Bri­tish artists and col­lec­tors of Con­ti­nen­tal in­flu­ences. Where the Im­pe­rial regime re­strained French artists in a Clas­si­cal straight­jacket, the Bri­tish turned to land­scape and na­ture and trans­formed job­bing to­pog­ra­phy into high art. Im­por­tantly, the snob­bery of the Royal Academy about wa­ter­colour and draw­ing masters led the wa­ter­colourists to com­bine and demon­strate that their medium could be quite as strong as oil paint­ing.

The foun­da­tion of what be­came the Royal Wa­ter­colour So­ci­ety in 1804 was a piv­otal mo­ment, even though it lacked two of the fore­most prac­ti­tion­ers: the short-lived ge­nius Thomas Girtin had died two years be­fore and his friend Turner pre­ferred to fol­low his own path.

Known as the ‘Old’ So­ci­ety, af­ter a ri­val, now the Royal In­sti­tute, was founded in 1831, it flour­ishes two cen­turies on. Turner and Girtin are revered and sev­eral names of this pe­riod, in­clud­ing Row­land­son, the Var­leys, Cot­man, Cox and De Wint are well re­mem­bered, but, at the time, they were not re­garded as far su­pe­rior to many col­leagues whose names are no longer com­mon cur­rency.

‘Cozens is the master of gen­tle but heart-stop­ping me­lan­choly’

Dur­ing the 18th cen­tury, in Bri­tain as on the Con­ti­nent, it had been usual to use gouache, oth­er­wise body­colour—ef­fec­tively poster paint—to make draw­ings seem as ro­bust as oil paint­ings. The re­sults tended to be rather char­ac­ter­less and, by the be­gin­ning of the 19th cen­tury, body­colour—even Chi­nese-white height­en­ing —was frowned upon and high­lights were cre­ated by al­low­ing white pa­per to shine through translu­cent washes of colour.

Turner was said to tear up the sea ‘with his ea­gle-claw of a thumb­nail’, which tal­lies with an ac­count of his com­plet­ing the won­der­ful A First Rate Tak­ing In Stores be­tween break­fast and lunch. Un­usu­ally, he al­lowed a wit­ness. He soaked the pa­per, then ‘scrab­bled at it in a kind of frenzy… grad­u­ally and as if by magic the lovely ship with all its ex­quis­ite minu­tia [sic] came into be­ing’.

When the Con­ti­nent be­came ac­ces­si­ble again in 1814, Bri­tish artists, and par­tic­u­larly wa­ter­colourists, flooded across the Channel, bring­ing with them an ex­hil­a­rat­ing free­dom that pow­ered the new Ro­man­ti­cism. As so of­ten, the shock of the new, rep­re­sented by the youth­ful Bon­ing­ton, Delacroix and their An­glo-french School, rapidly be­came the es­tab­lish­ment art of the Restora­tion monar­chies. Later in the cen­tury, along with Turner, it helped form the Im­pres­sion­ists. Arthur Melville con­verted to wa­ter­colour in Paris in 1873; later, Wil­son Steer and Sar­gent painted some of the best Im­pres­sion­ist wa­ter­colours of all.

The artis­tic revo­lu­tion of the first decades of the 20th cen­tury seemed to side­line wa­ter­colour, but great artists were less de­fined by medium than pre­vi­ously. Grad­u­ally, the tra­di­tion re-emerged in the work of D. Y. Cameron, the Nash broth­ers, Ed­ward Baw­den, Eric Rav­il­ious and oth­ers, and il­lus­tra­tors such as Leonard Squir­rell never aban­doned it.

Ed­ward Ardiz­zone stood in the line of Row­land­son, Hugh Buchanan and Ian Gard­ner ac­knowl­edge them­selves as Cot­man’s dis­ci­ples and many oth­ers of the best re­cent and con­tem­po­rary prac­ti­tion­ers— among whom I would rank Les­lie Worth, John Ward, Jane Carpanini RWS and Si­mon Palmer—en­sure that the great tra­di­tion is main­tained. Huon Mal­lalieu, Hon RWS, is the au­thor of ‘Un­der­stand­ing Wa­ter­colours’ (1985) and ‘The Bi­o­graph­i­cal Dic­tionary of Bri­tish Wa­ter­colour Artists’ (3rd ed. 2002)

‘The artis­tic revo­lu­tion of the 20th cen­tury seemed to side­line wa­ter­colour

Pre­ced­ing pages: J. M. W. Turner’s A First Rate Tak­ing on Stores (1818) was painted in a morn­ing. Left: Train Land­scape (1940) by Eric Rav­il­ious, one of the artists who brought the tra­di­tion back to promi­nence. Above: Paul Nash work­ing on one of the ‘Ver­nal Equinox’ oil paint­ings in 1943/4

John Piper in his stu­dio near Hen­ley-on­thames in 1981, sur­rounded by draw­ings, prints and stained-glass de­signs

Dun­not­tar Cas­tle, Kin­car­di­neshire (1984) by John Piper. He typ­i­cally worked in a mix­ture of me­dia—this is wa­ter­colour, gouache, ink and crayon—but fol­lowed in the Ro­man­tic wa­ter­colour tra­di­tion

The Sources of the Ar­vey­ron (1781) by Fran­cis Towne, one of the great­est ex­po­nents of wa­ter­colour

Hugh Buchanan in his East Loth­ian stu­dio —he de­scribes him­self as ‘a dis­ci­ple of Cot­man’

Mr Buchanan’s The Tu­to­rial. In­te­rior at Hopetoun (2012) in acrylic and wa­ter­colour. High­lights are achieved by the use of a rough hogshair brush or fine sand­pa­per to re­veal the pa­per it­self—’noth­ing is brighter,’ the artist as­serts

Welsh Land­scape by John Nash, who has been rather over­looked com­pared to his brother Paul, but his rep­u­ta­tion as a very fine wa­ter­colour land­scape painter is grow­ing fast

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