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
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