Wednesday, September 14, 2011

REVIEW: Sunday Times Watercolour Exhibition 2011

I visited the 24th Sunday Times Watercolour Exhibition at the Mall Galleries yesterday afternoon.  I came away thinking that maybe there needs to be different way of selecting for this exhibition.

This notion of the scope for changing the way the selection works was generated by an innovation this year.  The prizewinning artists were asked to display a selection of their works in the East Gallery - it created, in effect a small group exhibition.  I thought this was an excellent idea and I hope it will be repeated if for no other reason than it might stimulate more entries and serve to make the selector's judgement more acute.

I'm guessing that anybody who sees it will not disagree with what I'm going to say next.

Seeing a body of work together, one was immediately impressed with those artists who displayed consistency both in terms of topic, style and execution.  I'm guessing that it won't be long before emerging artist Jonathan Pitts, who paints his watercolours plein air (as reflected in the titles) and won second prize, lands a gallery which wants another budding Kurt Jackson.  Equally, one could appreciate why both Denis Roxby Bott and June Berry are both members of the Royal Watercolour Society.

More work by Jonathan Pitts - painted plein air
At present, the Sunday Times competition still selects from actual paintings which all have to be transported to London - which is hugely expensive for artists.  In the current economic climate this deters a lot of artists from submitting excellent work.

I wonder whether the exhibition could possibly be improved if, in future, it initially screened and selected from a digital submission of digital images of a body of work (no more than six pics) - from which one work was then selected for exhibition and transport to London.  Seeing a body of work together is an excellent way of identifying great watercolour artists.

Which is a very long way round of saying I was disappointed, for the second year running, by the entry which won the competition.  It's a nice enough painting and certainly warranted being in the show - but first prize....?  I also know I'm not alone in holding that view.

Prizwinners in the Sunday Times Exhibition
Centre - First prize (£10,000) John Hunt
Right - 2nd Prize (£6,000) Jonathan Pitts
Left bottom - Vintage Classics Prize for Cover Art (£500) Philip Ciolina
(My apologies to the artists concerned - I'm only that, in my opinion, there were other paintings which had a greater claim on the top prize - from my personal perspective.)

I don't feel as negative this year as I did about this exhibition as I did last year (see Review: Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2010 for a post I was loathe to write but which deserved to be written).

There was a lot more work this year which I was happy with.  To my mind there's still too few "wow!/blew me away" pieces - and my basic argument is that - for a competition of this type and reputation - there really should be an awful lot more of these sort of works.

However there are some good works and it is certainly an exhibition which is worth going to see.  (However I do wish that all the selected artists could be seen online as well).  Now for the work I liked...

The work I liked

I'm going to try and highlight the artists and the work that I liked.

First some comments about a couple of watercolour "luminaries".
  • David Firmstone - the Past President of the Royal Watercolour Society has a piece on the show.  Frankly, if it had been a traditional watercolour piece I think it would have walked it - and won the top prize.  It's an impressive piece which has real presence and there is lots to like about it.  However  it's in acrylics and it didn't win a prize.  The message for me is that this is quite probably a show which still prefers to see people working in traditional watercolours.
  • Adrian Berg RA - During my first walk round - when I just try to get a sense of what's in the show before I start on my second look (which is a lot more detailed) I spotted a painting and my immediate reaction was "there's somebody trying to be Adrian Berg".  Imagine my surprise when I realised that it was in fact a painting by Adrian Berg - who is a member of the Royal Academy of Arts!  That means this competition is getting entries by eminent artists - but eminence is no guarantee of a prize!  Mind you Adrian's watercolour painting style is a bit like Marmite.....
If I'd have been a selector I'd have happily voted for a perennial favourite artist of mine - Paul Banning to win the top prize.  His painting of a boatyard workshop just makes me want to eulogise about the joys of watercolour.

Workshop, Freebody's Boatyard by Paul Banning RI, RSMA
Alternatively, I'd have given some very serious thought to awarding it to Irish (see comments) British artist Robert Bates who painted a miniature - An Evening in My Part of the World which is an absolute little gem - and that's an understatement.  I can only imagine that nobody looked at it through a magnifying glass.  This is a tiny painting.  I gather that Robert's work is included in many major public and private collections, including the Arts Council and the British Museum.

An Evening in My Part of the World (£1,200) by Robert Bates

I've always liked June Berry's work.  It's very distinctive, I love her colour palette, it always has an interesting underlying narrative which makes on ponder and it's just - well, very "watercolour".

Two works by June Berry
the one at the top "A French Farmyard" (£1,450) was "Highly Commended"
I continue to appreciate Gordon McDowell's rooftops in Europe.  This year Benerabba didn't do it for me quite the same way that Toledo did last year (when it won the Smith and Williamson Cityscape Prize 2010) - but I liked it a lot nevertheless.

Benerabba by Gordon McDowell (£3,600)

I thought this year's winner of the Cityscape Prize was a worthy winner.  I've been viewing Denis Roxby Bott's very precise watercolours of architecture for years.  He works within a consistent palette and to a consistently high standard - and every now and again he produces a "wow" perspective - and this is one of them!

The Grand Harbour, Valetta, Malta (£3,000) by Denis Roxby Bott
winner of the Smithscape Cityscape Prize 2011 (£1,500)

two works which made me pause to look again
This was the end wall of the West Gallery - note how colourful the work is
You'll need to be quick to get to see it as it closes on Sunday!  However it's also open every day 10am-5pm until them and entrance is free.

The Catalogue is available in pdf format here and provides an indication for future entrants of the prices being charged by selected artists.  I'd love to see it adding in dimensions and media used.

Finally - some questions for you

  1. Have you visited this year's exhibition - and what did you think of it?
  2. Will you be submitting work to the 2012 Sunday Times Watercolour Exhibition next year?
Links:  Art Competitions - Resources for Artists (which has a section about this exhibition and lists previous posts on this blog)


  1. Robert (Bob) Bates, who I would call a friend, is an English painter not an Irish one. He lived in Ireland for over 20 years but has since returned to England. I am fortunate enough to own one of his works, a drawing of his father and one of his sons. He is one of the finest living miniature painters and has never gained the recognition he deserves. I hope this will lead to him being 'discovered' at long last.

  2. Re: Robert Bates - Meant to the image of the the work you have shown, the man in the forground is Robert himself...a self portrait.

  3. Thanks for this interesting and informative post. I love the water colour by Paul Banning, and wonder if you've come across the Illustrator P.J.Lynch? He does beautiful watercolours similar to Bannings, and if you like his, you'll find Lynch interesting too.
    You are so brave in your comments, good for you!!

  4. Many thanks Vivienne. The only reference I could find for Robert certainly suggested he was an Irish artist.

    I thought his work was quite delightful and I'd love to see more of it.

  5. well thanks for going Katherine, as usual you pull no punches.
    The winning painting is the view from my teenage bedroom! So therefore I rather liked it, it would be nice to know the sizes and see more pictures!
    I would love to enter but am limiting my wild stabs at juried exhibitions due to funding!! Framing and transport are very costly!!

  6. The problem with digital submissions is, that a lot of people don't seem to be able to take photogrpahs that do justice to the colours in their paintings.
    Richard McKinley told me once, that very often paintings in digital version look stunning, but seeing the original they turn out to be dissapointing.

  7. I'm afraid people cheat Astrid - and try and create the work they wish they'd done when making the digital image "look good". What they should be doing, of course, is make it look accurate

    However any competition inviting digital submissions should also indicate that any artwork selected that then doesn't live up to its image will not be hung. It's fine if they're better than the image - it's not OK if they are a big disappointment.

    For me a first round of digital screening is a really good way of getting people to submit work without it costing them a lot of money for a totally unknown return. Transporting artwork both ways is not cheap.

    If I knew my work had been selected via digital screening for a longlist (with final selection being the pic presented to a panel) and I had a much better chance of being selected then I'd also be much happier to submit work if I lived in the back of beyond.

  8. Totally agree Katherine, from one who does live in the back of beyond. It's 50 mile round trip just to get to the van that takes work up and back for the juried shows, it all adds to the cost.

  9. The other advantage from the perspective of those organising exhibitions is you don't have to have quite so many people paid to handle and store quite so many exhibits - even if it is only for a few days.

    It's also becoming more and more normal for competitions to start with a screening of digital art. There's an awful lot of entries to any competition that you can screen out without ever seeing it in person.


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