JMW Turner played a big part in giving watercolours mainstream artistic credibility
Delicate paintings of hills, trees, and clouds are what spring to most people’s minds when you say the word “watercolours”, and there are a few examples
of that sort of work at the Tate Britain’s new exhibition of the medium, which runs until August. But the chief curator, Alison Smith, has gone much further, showing that when you mix then with gouache and acrylics, paint them on twigs, or use them to build up abstract layers of colour, watercolours can be used to make bold, experimental art. It’s a roughly chronological show, and the bulk of the contemporary work is not revealed until the end. What kicks things off is the origins of the medium – before the word “watercolour” was coined – in manuscript illumination, map drawing, miniatures and, later on, in botanical and zoological illustrations. Tiny portraits of England’s Tudor monarchs of the 15th and 16th centuries are displayed alongside a 13th-century map and a copy of a 15th-century biography of William Hastings, decorated with gold and tempura. Although watercolour paints are notoriously quick to fade, the careful layering of pigment is still discernible, and in a room dedicated to orchids, macaques, hummingbirds and other living things painstakingly replicated by Victorian explorers, the colours are dazzling.
At this early stage in the history of watercolours, according to Smith, the painters were still seen as copyists or craftsmen, not true artists, and weren’t paid much for their work. Wenceslaus Holler, whose aerial views of 17th-century Tangier in ink and watercolour are full of clear, fine penmanship and subtle gradations of colour, died in extreme poverty, and supposedly his last words were to ask the bailiffs not to remove the bed he was dying on. The Society of Painters in Watercolour succeeded in addressing this problem after its launch in 1804 (followed by a splinter group, the New Society of Painters in Watercolour). A room dedicated to ambitious works created for exhibition reflects the painters’ new status and contains masterpieces, including works by William Blake, JMW Turner, William Henry Hunt and Walter Langley. Edward Burne-Jones’s The Merciful Knight is made from such a thick, dry mixture of watercolour and gouache that it almost looks like oils, as do the bright, opaque colours of Dorothy Webster Hawksley’s The Nativity, which combines the clean lines and angles of Japanese prints with the balanced composition of the Italian masters. A room on war reportage similarly shows that watercolours can be used for harsh, bright, grotesque realities, but other works make the most of the hazy, dreamlike qualities that the medium can create. A section on “inner vision” is subdivided into contemporary and older works, and includes Aubrey Beardsley’s Frontispiece to Chopin’s Third Ballade (a leaping horse bearing a stern-looking woman rendered in monochrome ink wash and clear lines) and more Burne-Jones and Blake, alongside a murky, sinister-looking Souvenir de Normandie by the novelist Victor Hugo. Three small paintings by Tracey Emin, from the series Berlin The Last Week in April show barely-there green, blue and brown shapes in a pale, watery wash that seems to express emotion more than figures. With a few detours, that brings us to the most radical, non-traditional use of watercolours: abstracts and installations. While most of these are contemporary, there are some early examples, including blotchy black patterns made by Alexander Cozens around 1785 (plates from A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape) and 10 Turner experiments in colour, one of which (Boats at Sea) simply shows two tiny vertical dashes of black paint and one of red.
Dominating the room from either end, are two enormous pieces by female artists from the last quarter-century. Sandra Blow’s 1988 painting Vivace, on a canvas almost three metres square, has a red splash of acrylic paint (not quite watercolour, but it can also be watered down) on a white background, with pieces of bright paper in purple, green, orange, yellow and blue running down one side. It’s faced by Karla Black’s Opportunity for Girls (2006), a sheet of clear cellophane painted with flesh-pink watercolour, emulsion and acrylic paints (as well as household gels such as petroleum jelly, shampoo and toothpaste) and suspended from the ceiling.
They’ve got immediate appeal, but compared with the painstaking detail of the earliest works in the exhibition – the orchids, miniatures and maps – the contemporary work often looks rushed and insubstantial. Smith disagrees, saying that the colours in Blow’s work, for example, are “very carefully applied”. In her words: “I don’t think you can say that precision and discipline have ever been abandoned.” At any rate, an Anish Kapoor abstract (Untitled, 1990) in vibrant red over a black wash, encrusted in its corners with grains of earth, is mesmerising. The show as a whole focuses on British uses of watercolour, but as Smith says, there is an international context to all the work. A section on travel includes a richly-hued Orientalist painting by John Frederick Lewis in the mid-19th century called Hareem Life, Constantinople, depicting opulent fabrics and Islamic patterns. Another by the same artist shows an aerial bazaar in Cairo, with touches of bright gouache white and watercolour picking out details of the crowd and architecture. Elsewhere, a stern Chinese sage in red beads and a blue robe looks out of William Alexander’s The Fou-Yen of Canton and craggy rocks loom in a desert landscape in Edward Bawden’s Siwa Oasis from the Ruined Old Town of Siwa. “It’s difficult to talk about a British way of using watercolour,” Smith says, “because artists travel all over the place, and a lot of the artists who established watercolour in Britain came from overseas.” The British landscape watercolourist Alexander Cozens, she points out, was born in Russia, and was probably influenced by Chinese art. Egypt is another possible source of early watercolour techniques, and watercolour painting has been practised by artists all over the world. “British miniature painting,” Smith says, “has a lot of parallels with Persian miniatures.” When you scratch the surface of what might seem like a quintessentially British art form, it turns out to have a very international flavour.