The essence of place

Huon Mal­lalieu en­joys an ex­hi­bi­tion that of­fers a fresh per­spec­tive on land­scape draw­ing be­tween 1850 and 1950

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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

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