Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: 'Watercolour' exhibition at Tate Britain

After JMW Turner - The Blue Rigi
coloured pencils in Moleskine sketchbook
and finally - the review of the Watercolour exhibition!

Oddly enough Turner really did finish my sketchbook as one of the last sketches I did on the afternoon before I lost it was one of the Blue Rigi (see above).  It's the one which was used by the Tate as the main motif for the exhibition.

The strapline to the exhibition is
Watercolour at Tate Britain invites you to challenge your preconceptions of what watercolour is.
The introduction goes on
The most ambitious exhibition about watercolour ever to be staged, with works spanning 800 years, this boundary-breaking survey celebrates the full variety of ways watercolour has been used. From manuscripts, miniatures and maps through to works showing the expressive visual splendour of foreign landscapes, watercolour has always played a part in British Art.
I don't know whether this has ever been attempted by any other museum.  Maybe not?

I think different people will respond to the Watercolour exhibition in different ways.  It's obviously a huge topic and I appreciate the effort that has been employed to try and reflect both the history of watercolour painting and the diversity of artists who have used water to make paint.  It pleased me and disappointed me.

In broad terms I found it disappointing the more it became contemporary - mainly because artists were included who are pretty marginal in the story of watercolour.  While at the same time there are more contemporary artists - both alive and dead - who have been masters of their craft and who have been ignored.  I'm thinking, for example, of people like Leslie Worth who used to be President of the Royal Watercolour Society.  He used to produce some totally amazing watercolours and, in the last 30 years or so, was the nearest thing I've seen to creating the sort of effects that Turner achieved .  By comparison, some of the contemporary work in the show is very insignificant in my view.

This is going to be a very partial review - along the lines of Katherine's best bits plus the odd snipe!

I was also introduced to some new artists who I'm going to highlight en route through the exhibition.

This review also includes coloured pencil sketches of the works I liked best - and thought I had half a chance of capturing with a sketch while sat on a stool in the exhibition.  (The trick with sketching in exhibitions is to lose your inhibitions very fast.  You are alone - sat on a stool - in the middle of a great big gallery!).  You'll see from these what sort of paintings I like the best!

Links are to images of the paintings.  Sad to say, the images of some of the ones in Tate ownership are not great quality when compared to the real thing.

The curator's video

First, here's the curator's video introducing the show which will give you a teeny weeny bit of context.

I say that because I really don't know why big galleries like the Tate haven't caught on to the notion that a quick trot through the show with a camcorder will wet appetites for a visit much more than a too detailed exposition of two or three paintings.  This video has got too little of the former and far too much of the matter.  We get to see more paintings in the newspapers than we do on their website!  (see the links at the end).

Intimate knowledge

This section considers the early development of painting with tempera by limners and others.  This early stage is seeing developments in how people record their worlds - whether it the mapping of estates (I loved the maps!) or the painting of miniatures.  (The exhibition was lacking the very necessary magnifying glasses required for appreciation of miniatures).

It also records the start of topographical drawings by people like Wenceslas Holler which were tinted with watercolour.

There's a gorgeous little watercolour sketch by Van Dyck which (but for the sailing ships in the background) could have been done last week!

The Natural World

The really odd things about art history is that it virtually ignores the role played by watercolour artists in recording - through botanical and natural history painting - the discoveries being made around the world and the recording and structural analysis of the natural world.  This sort of art was very much allied with science rather than the rest of the art world.  In part, it's not so different today.  Except rather more people admire the beauty as well as the technical value of the works produced in the past and the present.

This was my second favourite room.  The exhibition includes works by:
  • Alexander Marshal - who produced his own 159 page florilegium covering more than 600 plants and the birds, snakes, moths, beetles etc that go with them
  • Mark Catesbey - who does the most beautiful birds - the one on display is a Blue Grosbeak and comes from The Royal Collection which has a lot of his work.
  • Georg Dionusius Ehret - who revolutionised botanical illustration by working on the basis of the principles of the new classification system introduced by Carl Linnaeus
  • Sydney Parkinson who was one of the artists on The Endeavour voyage with Captain Cook (1768-71) and was the first European artist to set foot on Australian soil.  Imagine producing watercolours in all sorts of different climates on board a ship!
  • Franz Bauer - one of the Bauer brothers - this particular work comes from the Natural History Museum - not an art gallery!
  • Arthur Harry Church - who was new to me (maybe because he was really a botanist who drew and painted) - but I was simply stunned by his work.  The dissections are amazing as is the care with which they are drawn and painted.
  • Margaret Mee - who became renowned for her trips up the Amazon to paint plants in situ
  • Rachel Pedder Smith's bean painting - which I think I've now seen three times but never tire of looking at - and now I;vce got the tea towel of it too!
In addition, this section also includes a leaf painted by John Ruskin

Travel and topography

I think I liked this section best and there's lots to like. Here's just a small sample.
After Francis Towne - The Source of the Arveyron
coloured pencils in Moleskine sketchbook
  • two excellent paintings by Tom Girtin (1775-1802 ) - one of them being the very famous The White House at Chelsea much admired .  It's hung right next to The Blue Rigi, Sunrise by Turner - see the sketch at the top and this blog post Featured Acquisition: The Blue Rigi.  Which sort of seems appropriate given Turner much admired that particular work and they both used to work together and even collaborate on paintings as they were learning their craft.  See more of Girtin's and some of the collaborative work here
  • a splendid painting by Edward Burra of Valley and River, Northumberland - it's very abstracted while remaining figurative
  • another painting I really liked a lot was The Source of the Arveyron by Francis Towne.  There was something about the way the paint looked flat and wasn't.  The other way I connected with this painting is because it's actually done of four pages ie two double page spreads of the sketchbook - and then it's pieced together
  • a painting by Charles Rennie Macintosh - Fetges - which I've bought - as a print!  he draws and paints in watercolour like nobody else I've ever seen - and of all the painters in the exhibition I wish I could see and draw and design and paint in watercolour like him.  This is from the period when he and his wife were living in and around Port Vendres in southwest France.
The Exhibition Watercolour

After Arthur Melville - The Blue Night, Venice
coloured pencils in Moleskine sketchbook
It was absolutely fascinating to see what sort painting got into the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy or the new watercolour societies "in the old days".  I'd have loved to see a couple of excellent watercolours produced for exhibitions today - but no such luck.

This section includes some real treats.

The standout painting for me was The Blue Night, Venice by Scottish painter Arthur Melville (1855 - 1904) which is part of the Tate's permanent collection.  Melville is my new favourite watercolour painter after I saw the splendid paintings he had in The Glasgow Boys exhibition at the RA.  the image on their website is very poor.  This is a very but luminous painting.

There was also a very small painting Primroses and Birds Nest by William Henry Hunt (1790-1864 ) which kept drawing me back for another look.  It is, for want of a better way of describing it, a large miniature painting.  Meaning if it is incredibly detailed but not in an irritating way.  The juxtaposition of a birds nest containing clear blue eggs with a patch of primroses with light and bright primrose petals just got me from the off.  It's a complete virtuoso piece.  It does however reflect the somewhat obsessive preoccupation with detail of the time.  There's another similar painting by the same painter at the Lady Lever Art Gallery - 'Birds nest with basket of primroses'.

One of the other paintings in the Tate Collection notes that
A special technique was essential for Hunt’s fruit pieces and bird’s nests, which became greatly esteemed by collectors. He devised a new process which involved mixing gum with Chinese white and laying this as a hard priming on which he would then paint or stipple in pure watercolour. This enabled him to obtain the much admired ‘bloom’ on peaches, plums and grapes

Another very detailed large miniaturist painting in the same vein is Burnham Beeches by Myles Birket Foster (1825-1899) which was somewhat jaw-dropping is described as 
a sort of micro-mosaic done with the finest point of the brush

Watercolour and war

This is one of the better sections - simply in terms of the range of ways watercolour has been used to represent war.
  • the paintings which record catastrophic war injuries and how these are being repaired were gruesomely engaging - but then I'm the sort of person who can watch programmes involving surgery.  My other half would have scuttled past! Herbert Cole's three paintings of Private Green - which come from the MacAlister Watercolours at the the Gillies Archive at Queen Mary's Hospital at Sidcup in Kent.  These record the very early days of attempts to address severe facial injuries.  Painting was very much part of the documentation of a surgical process as they learned how to treat these injuries.  Private Green's very red hair forcibly reminds you that this is a very real person with a very real injury. Watercolour was apparently used because it actually provided a better record than a photograph!  (Warning - the links are not for the faint hearted.  You can see Private Green at #36-38)
  • I wished they had a better painting by Singer Sargent - he's such a great watercolourist
  • the Edward Burra paintings were quite amazing - they didn't look like watercolour at all until I got up close
Inner Vision

I didn't find much of interest in this room - apart from the Richard Dadd paintings and Samuel Palmer. 

I thought it was a pity there weren't more paintings by Samuel Palmer - so I made up for it by buying a book about him instead - and that's how I came to leave my sketchbook in the shop!

It wasn't so much that Dadd's paintings are precise - although I do enjoy a good miniaturist - so much as his paintings suggested an extraordinarily rich interior life.  Of course his paintings were all produced while he was locked up in a confined space in an asylum and were mainly based on memory - which makes them quite extraordinary!  I don't think there's ever been an exhibition of Dadd's work - such a pity.  I could sit and look at some of them for a long time.  Here are eight works by Richard DaddThe Child's Problem is in the exhibition.  The Fairy Teller's Master Stroke is currently on display elsewhere in the Tate
He stabbed his father to death. In August 1844 he was certified insane. In 1864 he was transferred to the newly built criminal lunatic asylum at Broadmoor (nr Crowthorne, Berks), where he died of consumption. He continued to paint throughout nearly 42 years of confinement.
Watercolour today:  Inner Vision

This room did nothing for me.  It seemed to start from a notion that all sorts of artists do a bit of everything and some of them even use watercolour - so let's show you what they do with it.

I thought the two paintings by Peter Doig could have been better and bigger and I'd have liked it better if they were.

I still have absolutely no idea what Tracy Emin is doing in an exhibition about watercolour when there are so many better contemporary watercolourists. 

The only work which was remotely interesting was Cell#1 by Lucy Skaer (b 1975).  On the face of it she seemed like she might be a contemporary painter who was maybe a modern day Bridget Riley.  But no - this is yet another artist who is NOT a watercolourist.

Actually I'd go so far as to say this room actively annoyed me in terms of the disrespect it paid to people who work seriously and consistently in water-based paint today.

Abstraction and Improvisation

This essentially was watercolour and the non-figurative. The real surprise in this room is that the two artists who are perhaps the most interesting produced their work a very long time ago.

Theer is a suite of Turner watercolours - which look like studies or starts to me - which would hold their own in any high end contemporary art gallery.  You can see them and Jon Snow talking about them in video on YouTube (see below).

I also found Alexander Cozens work to be fascinating and had absolutely no idea his dates are (171-1786).  You'd think somebody had produced them this year.  His notion was that artists should focus on ton and mas and not detail, since in nature
forms are not distinguished bylines, but by shade and colour
Apparently what he used to do was make swift strokes with diluted ink on to a blank sheet of paper.  he preferre crumpled paper since that would create more haphazard arrangements.  He was known as the Blot Man!  The Tate has 237 works by Cozens in its collection if you fancy taking a look.  Here also is a blog post about him plus an image of his work ‘Watercolour’: Alexander Cozens, aka the blot man
Alexander Cozens is best known for the treatises he wrote in which he attempted to categorise landscape types. His most famous is 'A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape'(1786), where he explained how to create imaginary landscapes by using ink blots. Paul Oppé wrote extensively about Cozens's theoretical approach to landscape, helping to elucidate his complex systems.
The Sandra Blow work is large(!)  and the Patrick Heron wrk was interesting in relation to technique - but everything else pretty well left me cold

The painting kits

One of the totally fascinating parts of the exhibition is a display of how painting kits have changed over the years.  There were a number of painting kits belonging to famous painters on display including Turner. Whistler and Queen Victoria's watercolour painting set from the early 19th century.

Don't miss as I did the first time I saw this exhibition, the wonderful painting by John Singer Sargent of the painting party - Miss Eliza Wedgwood and Miss Sargent sketching - it's sublime!

and finally......

Here are some other reviews of the exhibition - starting with a Jon Snow video on YouTube - who's very keen on Edward Burra's paintings which are included in the exhibition.  Plus he shows you some Turner paintings which look so contemporary they dominate the final room.

The Guardian has had various articles:
  • Watercolour at Tate Britain – in pictures This ambitious new show on watercolour art spans 800 years, and includes everything from war art to botanical illustrations, 18th-century abstraction to modern classicism. Works by William Blake, Anish Kapoor, JMW Turner, Tracey Emin and many others showcase a genre with a long-lasting emotional appeal in the UK. Here's a sample of the work on offer
  • Watercolour at Tate Britain - review Despite associations with Victorian ladies and flower paintings, watercolour has often been far from wishy-washy. The Tate's new survey – from the haunting visions of William Blake to intimate scenes by Tracey Emin – shows the medium's versatility and power 
  • Tate Britain makes a splash with watercolours - Curators set out to make watercolours cool - even the British landscapes
  • Tate Britain's Watercolour: Awash with inspiration Tate Britain's new show proves there's more to watercolours than pallid sunsets, but where are the happy amateurs?


  1. I would so love to see this exhibition. And your sketches are beautiful.

  2. This sketch is simply wonderful!

  3. Oh, get Turner's The Blue Rigi with colored pencils is
    amazing. I am always surprised and intrigued by how you get the feeling of a wash with pencils.


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