Apollo Magazine (UK)
Emma Crichton-Miller on British watercolours
Turner towers over the market for early British watercolours – and his finished works can fetch millions. When it comes to other artists, condition is key, and the freshness of the colours and the appeal of certain subjects can have a strong bearing on prices
It was, arguably, the Russian-born Alexander Cozens (1717–86), son of a shipbuilder to Peter the Great, who initiated the great age of British watercolours. Mixing pigment with gum arabic to apply to parchment or paper was a well-established technique among British portrait miniaturists. But in Rome in 1746, working alongside the French landscape painter Claude-Joseph Vernet, Cozens discovered a method for applying thin washes of watercolour to ink drawings to create works which, in the words of his contemporary Joseph Holden Pott, ‘have a peculiar excellence, in which they resemble painting; for the effect is not, as is usually the case, produced from outlines fitted up, but is worked into light, shade […] by a more artful process […] and afford a very harmonious effect’. The translucent wash over white paper allowed a particularly effective luminosity. Through his later, experimental ‘blot’ technique, taught to students at Christ’s Hospital and Eton College, Cozens encouraged budding artists to move beyond the strict discipline of topographical drawing into the use of watercolour for the conjuring of atmosphere and a poetic sense of place, a breakthrough fundamental for the emergence of the distinctive British school of watercolours.
For all Cozens’s influence, works on paper by him come so rarely to market that establishing a value is hard – Annabel Kishor, a specialist in British drawings and watercolours at Christie’s, says there have been only 45 on the market in the last 30 years, with the record set in 1990. His pre-Romantic A landscape with men bathing and a ruined tower beyond achieved £10,800 at Christie’s London in June 2007 (estimate £10,000–£15,000); that followed a surprising £9,600 at Sotheby’s London in 2005, for the beautiful An oak tree with cottages beyond, which had an estimate of just £1,800–£2,400. Prices are unpredictable, too, for the revolutionary, short-lived Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), friend and rival of J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) and another key figure in the establishment of watercolour as a respectable medium. His record is £468,650, established in November 2002 at Sotheby’s London, for the grandly composed Jedburgh Abbey from the South East. Last January, Christie’s sold his lively St Paul’s Cathedral from St Martin’s-le-Grand, London for $225,000 (estimate $180,000–$250,000). A considerable price, it pales in comparison with the £5.8m achieved for Turner’s The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise (1842) at Christie’s London (estimate £2m) in June 2006, at that time a record for any British watercolour. Turner’s later finished watercolours from the 1840s, with their loose handling and spectacular compositions, especially of the awe-inspiring Swiss landscape, are recognised as the pinnacle of British
watercolours and inspire the most ambitious bidding. A shimmering colour study of The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen with a Steamer (c. 1841) sold for $1.1m at Christie’s New York in January 2018 (estimate $800,000–$1.2m); while Sotheby’s sold The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen (1842) for £2m (estimate £1.2m–£1.8m) in July 2018 in London.
‘Quality is the determining factor,’ Kishor says of the market for British watercolours of this period. ‘Really strong images count. Condition is increasingly important. People want strong colours and no coloration from an acidic mount. They are quite picky about freshness.’ She adds: ‘We are quite a Britishbased market, but America represents a large proportion, alongside Continental Europe. Asia is growing from a small base.’
Mark Griffith-Jones, director of Sotheby’s British watercolours, drawings and portrait miniatures department, also emphasises the importance of condition: ‘For the world’s top collectors to take interest, the colours must be perfect.’ He cites the crisp Riva degli Schiavoni, from near San Biagio, Venice (1826; Fig. 1) by Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–28), which sold at Sotheby’s London in July 2015 for £341,000 (estimate £50,000–£80,000), a record for Bonington: ‘It was a view of Venice, which helps, but the great thing about the picture was its condition.’ He notes the consequence of particular subjects in this market – ‘if you can find a view that means something to the right buyer’ – and that collectors are drawn to ‘powerful images, bright colour, weather effects’.
Among the pioneers of British watercolours, Francis Towne (1739/40–1816) is sought after, his reputation reinforced by ‘Light, Time, Legacy: Francis Towne’s Watercolours of Rome’ at the British Museum in 2016. ‘Like many of these artists, after Victorian neglect, he was rediscovered by collectors such as Paul Oppé in the early 20th century,’ Griffith-Jones says. ‘He re-emerged as a colossus.’ Towne’s ‘freshness of eye’ appeals to contemporary audiences, his watercolours of Italy being especially popular: ‘The Grand Tour still has such a pull.’ Sotheby’s achieved an auction record for Lake of Albano, morning sun rising over Rocca del Papa (1781), sold for £289,250 in London in July 2010 (estimate £80,000–£120,000).
In 1780, the year Towne travelled to Rome, William Reeves invented the hard cake of soluble watercolour, making painting en plein air more practical. Meanwhile, by that decade, James Whatman had developed a smooth wove paper ready-sized with gelatin to use with watercolours, an indication of the medium’s popularity among artists in the late 18th century. Ideas of the picturesque and the sublime encouraged the development of the Romantic school of landscape watercolour. John Robert Cozens (1752–97), Alexander’s son, who was described by John Constable as ‘the greatest genius that ever touched landscape’, was a key figure. His dramatic view of The Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo (1783–85), with its evocative layers of weather, achieved £2.4m in 2010 in the Sotheby’s sale mentioned above (estimate £500,000–£700,000).
TEFAF will be a good place to scout for treasure. London-based dealer Stephen Ongpin will show an early J.R. Cozens (Fig. 2). He notes: ‘There are two very different markets – a very good Turner priced beyond the reach of most traditional collectors, and then the largely English-based middle market, which seems very healthy.’ His neighbour in Mason’s Yard, Guy Peppiatt, is a little more cautious, noting that the traditional exhaustive collector of British drawings, who enjoyed discovering new names among the hundreds of technically competent artists of the period, has been replaced by collectors drawn to ‘the best and the quirky’. He has currently, among other things, an atmospheric watercolour sketch of the Matterhorn by John Ruskin (1819–1900) from 1849 (£75,000; Fig. 3). Peppiatt adds, ‘At the highest level, a lot of the buyers are in the States’ – something confirmed by New York dealer David Tunick. He says, ‘With regard to New York, it is open season as long as the item is top quality.’ Tunick is bringing watercolours by J.R. Cozens and David Cox (1783–1859) to Maastricht: ‘To me they aredraughtsmen who are nearly without equal in their time and place. Their watercolours when fresh have a mystery and Romanticism about them that you never tire of.’
Jonny Yarker of London-based Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker, meanwhile, is keen to place British watercolours in a broader European tradition. ‘We are interested in masterpieces rather than a narrow school. If you can remove the slight prejudice of a national school, you can make for a greater story.’ He will be taking to Maastricht a sheet by ‘The Master of the Giants’, identified in 1977 as British artist James Jefferys (1751–84), who was active in Rome, inspired by Italian sculpture and printmaking and probably part of the international circle of artists who worked close to the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli. Ⓐ