The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880 
by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles.
Prestel, 339 pp., £21.50, January 1993, 3 7913 1254 5
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In a notebook entry written during the summer of 1743, the English engraver George Vertue paid tribute to his friend the ‘ingenious’ William Taverner, who ‘besides his practice of the Law ... has an extraordinary Genius in drawing and painting Landskips, equal if not superior in some degree to any painter in England’. Like other contemporary amateur producers of landscape watercolours, Taverner must have been aware that the favourite occupation of his leisure hours had long been associated with the demonstration of power and prestige; Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (first English translation, 1561) was only the first of many treatises on aristocratic conduct to recommend drawing as an activity appropriate to men of the highest rank. Moreover, in a nation where political rights and social status depended first and foremost on the ownership of land, the drawing of landscapes in particular came to acquire a remarkably potent symbolic charge. It is hardly surprising therefore that a lawyer such as Taverner, in common with many other upwardly-mobile members of the 18th-century middle class, sought to dignify his position by appropriating the identity of the noble amateur.

In fact, in Britain the production of watercolours involved an unusually large number of different interest groups whose presence led to frequent schisms and altercations. Relations between amateurs and professionals were fraught with tension, as can already be sensed from Vertue’s remarks; and by the early 19th century the widespread acceptance of watercolour drawing as a suitable accomplishment for fashionable women of marriageable age made the genre susceptible to charges of decorative frivolity and intellectual shallowness. At one time or another, most watercolourists had to supplement their income by teaching gentlemen as well as ladies, even though the circumstances of such employment were inherently humiliating, for if the drawing-master’s task was to instruct his pupils in a skill that was valued as a signifier of gentility, any tutor who was paid by the lesson found it immensely difficult to escape the stigma of venality that condemned him to the status of a highly specialised servant.

Conditions were little better for those landscape draughtsmen who produced visual records of foreign scenery for Grand Tourists or other wealthy travellers to more exotic lands. In 1799, for example, when Thomas Girtin was nearing the height of his fame as a landscape ‘genius’, Lord Elgin offered him £30 a year to carry out a pictorial survey of Greek monuments in what was then Turkish territory; ‘and as lady Elgin possessed a taste for drawing’, a 19th-century source informs us, her husband ‘wished to know whether he would engage to assist her in decorating fire-screens, work-tables, and other such elegancies’. Complaining of the paltry salary on offer, Girtin eventually declined the invitation, though not before he ‘had the mortification to learn a severe lesson, – that his talents were not estimated at half the value of those of his Lordship’s valet de chambre’.

Yet eight years previously, at the uncertain outset of his brief career, Girtin had quite willingly accepted a commission from the publisher-cum-antiquarian James Moore to produce an extensive series of finished watercolours of castles and monastic ruins; these drawings were based on rough sketches done by Moore himself, who subsequently arranged for several of the Girtins to be issued in the form of aquatints. This sort of project was entirely typical of the bread-and-butter work that was essential to the survival of the vast majority of landscape draughtsmen. It was true that they could claim to be the inheritors of a cultural tradition rooted in courtly life, but it was equally true that their profession had much better-known connections with the most menial type of pictorial labour. For centuries watercolour had been the standard medium for map-makers, as well as military draughtsmen and surveyors; indeed, Paul Sandby had launched his career by serving in all three of these capacities for the English Army, during its campaign to subdue the Highlands after the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6. He went on to play a leading role in introducing watercolour – as the medium par excellence for topographical views – to the large and varied audiences at London’s annual art exhibitions. Finding it impossible to make ends meet from the sale of his pictures, Sandby taught drawing to private pupils, and at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, and like many later watercolourists he received a sizeable proportion of his income from the publishing industry: not only from the numerous entrepreneurs who commissioned and sold sets of prints or individual engravings, but also from book-publishers anxious to meet an insistent and ever-growing demand for illustrated magazines, travel guides and other forms of topographical literature. The reproductive print trade in its various branches held out the promise of considerable financial rewards, particularly for specialists able to churn out masses of acceptably finished views in a short space of time, but this kind of hack-work could hardly claim the status of a liberal or dignified art.

In this and in several other respects, watercolour suffered greatly by comparison with oil-painting. Painting was regarded as a more public, and hence as a more serious and prestigious medium; its practitioners also enjoyed the support of a large body of highly-respected theory in which watercolour simply had no place. Furthermore, the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768 had granted institutional supremacy to the British school of painting, leaving artists who laboured in ‘inferior’ media to fend for themselves. The fact that the Academy also functioned as London’s premier venue for the display and sale of works of art also put watercolourists at an enormous disadvantage, since their works were ill-suited to compete for attention with the generally larger and more richly tinted oils that invariably dominated the exhibition walls.

In 1804 this combination of factors prompted 16 leading watercolour specialists to establish their own exhibiting body, the Society of Painters in Water-Colours. That the artists involved made the calculated decision to insist upon their identity as ‘painters’ gives some indication of their aspirations to equality with their rivals in the Academy; so, too, does their almost exclusive emphasis on landscape as the most suitable subject-matter for their medium, and their policy of excluding floral still-lives, portrait miniatures, architectural designs and perspectives, as well as all works by amateurs. An important related aspect of this bid for professional respectability centred on the attempt by one of the SPWC’s founders, William Henry Pyne, to dignify watercolour with a laudatory written history. Two principal themes dominated Pyne’s and other early accounts: first, that the glories of watercolour constituted a uniquely British artistic triumph; and secondly, that over time the watercolour had progressed from its humble origins in tinted drawing to take its rightful place as a type of painting, purified of any formal concerns extraneous to the medium. Together these arguments served to mask the incoherent nature of watercolour production, and to downplay as far as possible the more demeaning aspects of the genre. Instead of trying to come to terms with a motley actuality of male and female amateurs, teachers, topographers and commercial draughtsmen, as well as would-be fine artists, the emerging grand narrative of the English watercolour (narrowly focused on the watercolour landscape) revolved around a succession of heroes, beginning with Sandby (if only as the father of a far more illustrious progeny), going on to J.R. Cozens (who went mad) and Girtin (who died young), and eventually reaching a triumphant climax with the work of J.M.W. Turner.

The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880, on view at the Royal Academy until 12 April, sets out to recycle this rather tired old story in a manner that remains remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original, despite the occasional difference in emphasis. Both the exhibition itself and the accompanying catalogue, by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles, ask us to regard the works on display as part of a straightforward linear history, following a natural ‘evolution’ over time from the ‘more tentative’ practice of tinted drawing to the ‘more complete form’ of painting. In this progressive pattern Wilton finds evidence for a triumph of the national character, ‘typically British’ in its ‘pragmatic readiness to experiment and evolve techniques according to need’, sustained by an ‘innate inventiveness’, and nourished by the ‘empiricism’ that formed ‘an integral part of the British temperament’. But the ‘decisive factor’ that sparked this blossoming of artistic talent was that same ‘instinct for national advancement’ responsible for the growth of Empire: ‘The watercolourists were part of this patriotic progress, caught up like everyone else in the pushy spirit of the times.’ I suspect that 19th-century historians of the landscape watercolour would have felt entirely at home with this fuzzy rhetoric of great national achievement: we have a right to expect clearer thinking and more in the way of substantial argument from the leading modern scholars in the field.

There are, however, other less obvious and more interesting ways in which Wilton and Lyles have rallied to support the professionalising project launched by the first watercolour societies and their apologists almost two hundred years ago. Like its early predecessors, the exhibition at the Royal Academy confines its attention to that narrow élite of watercolourists whose status as ‘fine artists’ has never been in serious dispute. Although the catalogue acknowledges the importance of countless unnamed amateurs (as ‘the loam from which great art can grow’, in the words of Ralph Vaughan Williams), only two (named) amateurs have been deemed worthy of representation in the show: John White Abbott, the remarkably faithful imitator of his teacher Francis Towne, and the Reverend William Gilpin, who merits such exceptional treatment solely on account of his work as a leading theorist of the picturesque (in fact, Gilpin didn’t produce watercolours at all). George Vertue’s friend William Taverner doesn’t even get a mention in the catalogue, despite the fact that his watercolours have regularly featured in most recent surveys of British landscape art; while the failure to include any architectural drawings has deprived viewers of a chance to admire even one of Joseph Michael Gandy’s amazing compositions of imaginary buildings, which must rank among the most spectacular exhibition watercolours that have ever been created. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Wilton and Lyles cannot bring themselves even to refer to any women artists, except under the general collective heading of ‘young ladies and maiden aunts’. One would have thought that an exhibition of this size (there are 326 pictures in all, as well as 54 other images illustrated for comparative purposes in the catalogue) might have been able to manage at least one work by so prominent an amateur as Lady Diana Beauclerk, or by as highly esteemed a professional as Helen Allingham.

The implicit assignment of women’s art to a devalued realm of domestic handicraft goes hand in hand with an unprecedented attempt to insist on the serious intellectual character of all significant watercolour practice; indeed, at one point the catalogue dares to advance the highly dubious proposition that ascribes the invention of ‘many of the most original’ Romantic landscape images to a preoccupation with theoretical concerns. To argue this case Wilton and Lyles have had to supply their history with a new point of origin, in the theories and practice of Alexander Cozens (the father of the more famous John Robert) – never mind that Cozens senior largely ignored the watercolour medium in favour of working in monochrome, nor that an almost unbroken wall of silence soon fell over his curious attempts to produce a systematic typology of landscape compositions. Wilton’s efforts notwithstanding, surely one of the most significant features of watercolour practice was precisely that it lacked any secure basis in art theory. Hence to open the exhibition with a gallery devoted to ‘The Structure of Landscape: 18th-Century Theory’, is to pursue a strategy that is fundamentally flawed, and, one is tempted to say, almost wilfully perverse.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the pictures on view in this first, grand room do not support the thesis summarised on the explanatory placard, and expounded at somewhat greater length in the catalogue essay. The sequence of images by (to list only the main figures) Alexander Cozens, Gainsborough, Francis Towne, John Robert Cozens, Girtin and John Sell Cotman simply do not describe anything like a ‘steady evolution through the stages of an inexorable 18th-century logic’ (as if such a thing could ever be possible); moreover, the presence of additional works by figures as diverse as Gilpin, Constable, Robert Adam and Sandby reduces the ensemble to a state of baffling incoherence. And this isn’t the only time that the exhibition’s conceptual shortcomings find themselves so openly exposed.

With the exception of the final room, dedicated to the topic of the exhibition watercolour, none of the headings under which the works have been arranged holds up under even the mildest critical scrutiny. Clichéd terms like ‘Topography’ and ‘Naturalism’ are notoriously unhelpful when they are used, as in the present instance, to suggest the capacity of artists to achieve an entirely unmediated response to the natural world, to express a ‘simple truth’ that transcends aesthetic convention. Moreover, it is frequently impossible for visitors (no matter how well informed they might be) to understand why a particular work has been placed in one room instead of another, or to grasp the reasoning behind the arrangement of a sequence on a given wall.

Doubtless Wilton and Lyles would say that their prime objective has been to present a beautiful array of gorgeous objects – and by this criterion the exhibition can be judged an unqualified success. Yet surely the same objects could have been shown in such a way as to offer at least some serious food for thought, as well as pleasure for the eye. To begin with, visitors should have been given an idea of the conditions in which most watercolours were originally meant to be examined (that is to say, to be taken out of portfolios and laid flat, in a library or study – and not to be matted, framed and hung on walls). And it must be a matter of particular regret that the organisers have failed to provide any indication on the labels about the various uses for which the works on display were originally intended: that many come from sketchbooks, for example (and it would have helped to have at least one sketchbook in the show), that some were meant to be engraved, others to be sold; that such a one was meant only as a private souvenir, and others to remain within the circle of a master and his pupils; that some works were simply never completed, while others were left deliberately unfinished – and so on. The one apparent exception to this rule of silence is the treatment of the exhibition watercolours, which have been identified as such and given a gallery to themselves. This would all be well and good, were it not for the (unacknowledged) fact that big 19th-century watercolour shows actually included many small drawings and sketches, which almost certainly outnumbered (and outsold) the large and ambitious ‘machines’. The withholding of all manner of basic information not only precludes the possibility of making any real sense of British watercolours and their uses; it also collapses a rich variety of different artistic projects into one seamless and harmonious national enterprise.

The cumulative effect of these various lacunae, coupled with the convenient marginalisation of such embarrassments as women artists and amateurs, is a show which promotes the profoundly misleading impression that British watercolourists confined their operations to an entirely unproblematic realm of uniformly high art production – to a pure aesthetic space supported by theory, governed by the demands of ‘Nature’, and determined in the final instance by the inherent capacities of the medium. If one motive for this presentation is a good old-fashioned formalism, a second appears to be the pressing desire to yoke the ‘progress’ of the watercolour to the even grander narrative of European modernism. The catalogue’s scattered but insistent references to Impressionism, Cubism, Gauguin, Matisse et al, suggest a final irony; that only by acknowledging the supremacy of Continental culture can a ‘uniquely British’ mode of artistic expression be judged worthy of the accolade of greatness.

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