Friday, September 04, 2015

Two watercolour exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

While I was in Cambridge recently I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum to see two exhibitions:
Below you will find a review of the first exhibition - and review of Ruskin's Turners follows tomorrow.

I highly recommend both exhibitions to anybody who enjoys watercolour paintings - particularly those of the past Masters - and who can get to Cambridge before they close.
Admission is free to both exhibitions.

Venice, storm at sunset, 1840, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851),
watercolour and bodycolour with pen and red ink and scratching out on paper, 222mm x 320mm
All images copyright Fitzwilliam Museum

This was painted during Turner's third visit to Venice.
During the latter half of August 1840 he apparently produced 100+ colour sketches on loose sheets
and in sketchbooks.  He used his untrimmed thumbnail as a painting tool and
used this to scratch the paper surface of the painting to produce highlights.
In my view, it's when I visit exhibitions like this that I appreciate (all over again) what is possible using transparent watercolour paints and/or opaque body colour. At the same time I lament how little we see of such diversity and talent today when people think it's OK to have exhibitions of ostensibly watercolour paintings - which are actually stuffed full of paintings in acrylic!  (I do wish the acrylic painters would form their own society and leave the watercolour societies to more traditional media!)

Come to this exhibition to see what can be achieved with watercolour and how impressive the painters of the past were when they used it!

Shakespeare Cliff, Dover, c.1825, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), 
watercolour on paper, 181mm x 245mm
Unsurprisingly, this is a painting which has been exhibited more than once!
I also recommend the catalogue for the first exhibition as it's informative about the techniques employed by the different artists. (I have to say the Fitzwilliam Online Shop looks as it's well overdue for an upgrade!). The cover uses the above painting by Turner.

It's been a very real disappointment while writing this post to find that the Fitzwilliam website does not make it easy to share the watercolours in its collection online. One could be forgiven for thinking that there has been no will to digitise the collection (or maybe just a very poor database and/or search engine of what has been digitised?). The end result is that the paintings which are most difficult to exhibit are also the most difficult to find!

There should be no doubts that very many people appreciate watercolour paintings - this is an exhibition with a lot of visitors - however:
  • There is no virtual exhibition of the exhibition or selected highlights for those unable to visit
  • You have to know to search via their app - which can be found at
  • When you search the paintings in the collection, it's the oil paintings which typically come up for specific artists and not the watercolours.  However if you search under drawings rather than paintings I then found that the watercolours begin to appear.
  • Initial impressions were that important painters in watercolour appear to be completely ignored or are very difficult to find - until the advanced search function is used - or the special app.
However having raised the issue with the Fitzwilliam, I'm assured they are very much aware of the issues with the website and the share function and the impressions that it gives - and that these are currently being addressed by the Museum. Which is a relief as hopefully that means things can only improve!

My experience interrogating the website for links to paintings in the exhibition means I've endeavoured to share some of the links to works in the collection - and online - in my review below.  Where it says "more watercolours by...." that means these are not necessarily in the show but are part of the collection.

Note also that the Museum is piloting a new approach to Photography in the Galleries and is allowing people to take photographs of paintings hung in the permanent collection - although sadly not those in the temporary exhibitions. Let's hope this new approach will also soon be reflected in better digitisation and access to the permanent collection and a more enlightened approach to the use of low resolution images of those artists whose work left copyright many moons ago.

Watercolour: Elements of Nature

The Fitzwilliam Museum has a very fine collection of watercolour paintings. This exhibition:
  • demonstrates how the medium has been handled by different painters working in different traditions and in different countries. 
  • highlights the individual ways of working and 
  • where possible also comments on the paints and paper used by the artist.
The exhibition is organised by themes and sections - these are:

Miniature Painting

This includes four works by Nicholas Hilliard.  See Watercolour miniatures by Hilliard - typically on vellum stuck to a card (often a playing card)

Flower Painting

This has four excellent examples of large watercolour paintings of flowers by Pierre-Joseph Redouté

Landscapes in Britain's "Golden Age"

This comments on how watercolours developed in the 18th and 19th centuries beyond the purely topographical. They became more interesting as artists began to be able to sketch and paint in the landscape due to changes in paint technology which made watercolour paints easier to use and transport. 

Importantly this section highlighted some old favourites alongside other painters I'm less familiar with - such as Cornelius Varley and Peter de Wint and others.
Yorkshire fells, c.1812, Peter De Wint (1784-1849)
watercolour with gum arabic over traces of graphite on paper, 363mm x 565mm

De Wint was influenced by the work of Thomas Girtin
He generally used a heavier weight paper by Thomas Creswick (c.1774-1840) or Whatman
It includes landscape paintings by all the 'C's - ConstableCotman, CoxCozens (A) and Cozens  (JR) and a lot of paintings of water in the sea and the sky by Turner! (see above for examples); views of uplands by Girtin and visionary paintings by Palmer.
Postwick Grove, c.1835-1840, John Sell Cotman (1782-1842),
watercolour on paper, 178mm x 272mm
The Magic Apple Tree, c.1830, Samuel Palmer (1805-1881)
pen and indian ink, watercolour, in places mixed with a gum-like medium, on paper, 349mm x 273mm

This is one from his 'visionary' period when he was based in Shoreham in Kent.

There's a long explanation about this famous painting on the website (link embedded in title)"in the more finished works, like the Magic Apple Tree, he invests nature with a visionary significance 
instead of attempting to represent landscape as such"

Artists' materials

This focuses on the materials used to develop paints. Dry pigments - mostly derived from minerals, plants, natural earths and insects are on display along with the method of using mussel shells to mix them with a binder such as gum arabic.

The books of recipes for making small hard cakes of paint (introduced in 1781) and an early plein air painting box is on display.

The exhibition is notable for commenting on materials in relation to individual paintings in both the exhibition and catalogue. Would that more exhibitions did the same!

Watercolour and the Amateur

The change in technology for producing paints and the growing popularity of landscape paintings in the 19th century prompted a boom in sketching.

Included in the exhibition are manuals for "how to sketch" including A Treatise on Landscape Painting and Effects in Water Colours" by David Cox who was working art tutor for much of his professional career. (Note: You can read an archived copy online - I downloaded the pdf copy)

Watercolour Liberated 

This part of the exhibition focuses on how painters reacted to the development of watercolour painting to include a high degree of finish during the course of the 19th century. Consequently it focuses on the more informal, sketchy and looser applications of watercolours by painters such as Cezanne and PissaroSinger Sargent and Whistler; and Steer and Nash
  • one of my favourites is Arthur Melville (1858–1904) who is a brilliant watercolourist and influenced the Glasgow Boys!  I was really pleased to see a painting of The Alhambra at Granada but it's such a pity the image is not online - he's well outside the limitations of copyright.  Interestingly its colour palette and the absence of blue skies makes it resemble a painting of Edinburgh Rock more than Granada!
Giudecca, ?1913, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
watercolour over graphite on paper, 305mm x 457mm

Sargent often painted his watercolours while sat in a gondola. This particular view is well away from the more popular sights in Venice and has been identified as the Rio delle Covertite on the Island of Giudecca
There are two other rather nice paintings by Singer Sargent of a fountain and boats on Majorca - in the show
Grey and Silver, North Sea, c.1884, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)
watercolour on paper, 165mm x 268mm

Whistler was convinced that it was possible to convey atmosphere using a very limited colour palette and did so in watercolours just as much as he did in oils
"a bit of Antwerp blue, an' white and' black's all you want; and paint thin"

Here are links to their works in the permanent collection:
Still life flowers in a jar, ?1885-1880, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
watercolour and graphite on white paper, 466mm x 300mm

There's also a land scape by Cezanne in the exhibition. Neither are his best work.

In terms of British watercolour painters, the only living artist represented is Barbara Rae with her painting of Red Hill. It's a pity there aren't more paintings by contemporary heavyweights.

The two (dead) British painters most represented in the last section are 

Other reviews of this exhibition

Below are the reviews by:


Coral Guest said...

What a concise and excellent review Katherine!

I've seen both these shows three times, and each time I absorbed more and more understanding. These exhibitions, although small, are the absolute creme de la creme of watercolour painting. This is as good as it gets for the medium, and with curatorship of this quality one cannot help but be in awe of the wonderful tradition of watercolour painting that is our inheritance. How fortunate we are that work of this calibre is so acessible to us all. Absolutely marvellous.

kathrynlaw said...

Katherine, thank you for your comment regarding acrylic works in "watercolour" shows, I too find that it feels very un-authentic and takes away from the show as a whole. Where do we draw the line if acrylic works are hung that look just like oil? How about water-soluble oils, shouldn't they be accepted then too? It's not right, in my opinion. Anyway, thank you, and perhaps it is best not to publish this comment (lest it be taken as inflammatory, in which case I would regret it later). I mainly just wanted to say thanks. Beautiful review of these shows, which I wish I could see.

Making A Mark said...

Kathryn - I think it needs saying.

In my (very strong) view artists using acrylic should create their own art society to display what can be achieved with acrylic paint - and stop blocking entries to art competitions and art society exhibitions by those using traditional watercolours.

We see far too little good watercolour painting these days. One only has to compare this exhibition to that of one well known art society to see how little traditional watercolour is valued these days.

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