Watercolour @ Tate Britian

Watercolour Tate Britian

I am a bit late to the party with this review. The exhibition opened in February and closes on 21st of August. Various circumstances prevented me from visiting until recently, but I think it is worth recording my opinions, even if it is only for my benefit.

Before I start the review I should explain that watercolour is my least favourite method of making artistic marks on paper(or any other support for that matter). I find it difficult to handle if I am working anything bigger than A5 size and I find that my results are generally disappointing. There are some artists who can handle the technicalities of medium, but I generally find that their work is, how shall I put it gently, boring. I associate watercolours with meticulously rendered reproductions of country churches and pastoral landscapes. Paintings that make me think, why didn’t you just take a photograph and save yourself the time and trouble.

I also tend to think of watercolour as a very English method of painting. I don’t know if this is a good thing, a bad thing or something that does not really matter.

I did, however, go to the Tate ready to have my opinions of the medium and the artists who use it radically revised.

My opinions were partly altered by the first two rooms. These rooms explored the  origins of watercolour and it’s earliest uses. Some of the early illustrated manuscripts were to my eyes quite beautiful. The detailed scientific illustrations I found to be interesting, and could understand how important they would have been in their time. The paintings of flora were inevitably, both more detailed and more accurate than the paintings of fauna.
Sydney Parkinson’s New Zealand Honeysuckle (Knightia excelsa) (left) painted in 1770 is typical of the genre./

My opinions about watercolour as a medium, so recently loosened, began to be reconfirmed by the next room “Evocations of Nature” and by the time I had viewed the following room “Display” my opinions were firmly re-set, in concrete.

The first of the two rooms, “Evocations of Nature”, covering a period from around 1750 to 1800, explored new techniques which allowed the artist to capture light and atmosphere for the first time. It was around this time that watercolours began to be regarded as works of art in their own right. This is possibly because Thomas Girtin, JMW Turner and John S Cotman were all using the medium during that period. They were all fine painters and all could use watercolour to good effect.

The second of the two rooms “Display” showcased paintings that purport to show that watercolour was the equal of oil.. This myth is still peddled by organisations such as Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and Royal Watercolour Society.

Norham Castle Sunrise
The Blue Rigi
The Blue Rigi

If you need proof that watercolour is never the equal of oil when it comes to producing great art all I ask you to do is compare two paintings. The painting that is the raison d’etre of the exhibition Turner’s The Blue Rigi and almost any of his oils, say Norham Castle Sunrise painted about two years later. The reproductions here do not do either of them justice, but Norham Castle suffers the most. It is a large painting (908 x 1219mm) so we lose the grandeur of it’s size and we also lose the effects of Turner’s brush-work. The Blue Rigi is about quarter that size and being a watercolour the brush-work barely shows. It is a simple matter to compare them in the flesh. For the time being The Blue Rigi is in the Watercolour Exhibition. Norham Castle normally hangs in the same building, Room 6 if my memory serves me correctly. Look at them both and ask yourself, which one looks like a great work of art and which one looks like a very good sketch for a painting that was never completed.

A Dream in the Apennine (c.1864).

There is one painter whose work in watercolour does occasionally approach greatness, and who to my mind was sadly under-represented in the exhibition, that artist is Samuel Palmer. The only work of his that I recall seeing was A Dream in the Apennine (c.1864). The painting positively glows. The light that shines out of it lights up the room. The painting captures a moment in time, but it evokes timelessness. There should have been more of him.

Another aspect of watercolour that I felt was missing were examples of the railway posters produced from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. While no one would describe them as great art, they are lovely examples of what a good graphic artist can produce with gouache.

Of the remaining rooms only the room titled “Watercolour and War” had anything to say to me. What we saw in that room was watercolour’s great strength. Water colour is portable in a way that very few other mediums are. The artists who took their pocket-sized watercolour sets with them when they went to war, were able to paint what was going on around them in a way that a painter using oils could not. None of their work is great art, but it captures, the scenes of war with an immediacy that no other medium can equal.

When it came to the rooms showing contemporary watercolour usage, I think even the most enthusiastic of the curators must have despaired. When the main painting in the final room is a Sandra Blow acrylic with collage, Vivace, I got the idea that they were struggling to fill the space.

The exhibition confirmed the views that I held about water-colour. It is a marvellous medium for making sketches and small paintings from life. It is excellent for situations where accuracy and detail are the main object – such as the c18th botanical paintings. Try to take it beyond a certain size and it just does not work, the painting looks flat.

Two friends who came with us to the exhibition (both watercolour artists) left the exhibition enthused, the said it had given them lots of ideas about techniques that they could use. I left slightly depressed because it gave me no ideas or inspiration about art.


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