The essence of place
Huon Mallalieu enjoys an exhibition that offers a fresh perspective on landscape drawing between 1850 and 1950
Once, I had lunch with Helen Binyon, artist, lover of eric Ravilious and daughter of Laurence Binyon, who was not only the poet of For the Fallen, but had been Keeper of Drawings at the British Museum (BM). I expected to see many english watercolours on her walls, but there was just one, which her father had bought only because he did not know what it was. He felt that, as he had the run of the 30,000 British watercolours and drawings in the BM collection, he didn’t need one of his own.
The point is well made by this show of 125 landscape examples, mostly from the BM collection, not from 1750 to 1850, the ‘golden age’ of cozens, Girtin, Turner and cotman, but rather the gene- rally overlooked second half of the 19th century and first of the 20th. More than half have never been shown before and some are by little-known hands, but almost all are very fine things.
The title of the show, ‘Places of the Mind’ comes from a 1949 collection of essays by the critic Geoffrey Grigson, which posits the idea that landscape drawing is not mere description, but about conveying the essence of the place. In turn, Grigson took the idea from David cox, who wrote, in 1853, after submitting drawings for the Royal Academy exhibition: ‘It strikes me the committee think them too rough; they forget they are the work of the mind which I consider very far before portraits of places.’
The first thing that becomes very evident is that the glory days did not come to a sudden halt in the 1850s with the deaths of Turner and Cox. There was not even a gradual decline, but some things did change. Technical skills may even have improved: just look at View on the River Teme, Ludlow, Shropshire (1872–73) by George Price Boyce. Using a tightly limited range of tones, he indeed gives us the essence of an overcast late-summer afternoon; one can physically feel the stillness of the air and see the movement of the unrippled water.
At the beginning of the 19th century, purists had eschewed anything that detracted from the translucency of watercolour applied to generally white paper. Highlights were obtained by thinning or scratching rather than the use of Chinese white. However, it was gradually admitted that exhibition watercolours, intended to hang framed on walls with oil paintings and to hold their own against them, could do so better by using a judicious combination of watercolour with gouache, otherwise known as bodycolour. A good late example
is the 1891 Sheep Farm on the
Dudden, Windermere, by Hubert Herbert Coutts. Coutts (1851–1921), who changed his name from Tucker to differentiate himself from his painting brethren, was another very fine technician, once celebrated but now little remembered. In this strong landscape, he gives us the very bones of the hillside.
Fashions evolved and this show is not just of watercolours, but drawings in mixed media, including pastel, chalk and pen and ink. Moving towards the 20th century, it includes works by James Mcneil Whistler, Edward Burne-jones, John Singer Sargent, Muirhead Bone, Paul Nash, John Minton, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.
Different sections explore not only the variety of techniques and styles, but also the cultural and social upheavals of the time, including the effects of tourism at home and abroad, the role of artists’ colonies, contemporary writing and the devastating effect of two World Wars.
Although there is obviously a great divide between the centuries, as most of the 20th-century artistic revolutions were at least prefigured, if not actually accomplished, between 1905 and 1917, it is less obvious here, because of the unifying theme of landscape. In addition, the influence of Samuel Palmer, who died only in 1881, and his fellow Romantic Pastoralists persisted strongly throughout the period, most obviously in the work of the Nash brothers, Bawden and Ravilious, but also in a more modern-seeming drawing as John Craxton’s 1942 Churchyard.
The accompanying book of essays, edited by Kim Sloan and available in the museum shops and online, is supported in memory of Melvin R. Seiden (as is the exhibition) and by a grant from the Dr Lee Maccormick Edwards Charitable Foundation, awarded to the American Friends of the British Museum. ‘Places of the Mind: British watercolour landscapes’ is at the British Museum (Room 90), Great Russell Street, London WC1, until August 27 (020–7323 8181; www.britishmuseum.org) Next week: Tattoo art at the Maritime Museum Cornwall
‘The glory days did not come to a halt with the deaths of Turner and Cox’
Above: Stream through wooded banks, Devon (1850) by John Middleton. He first toured Devon in 1850, sketching across the county. Below: Churchyard by John Craxton (1942). The artist can be seen looking out from the church in the foreground
Boyce’s View on the River Teme, Ludlow, Shropshire (1872–3)
Hubert Coutts’s Sheep Farm in the Dudden, Windermere (1891) was one of a number of English watercolours exhibited internationally