An Awfully British Medium

The subtleties of watercolour reflect the national character—and it’s still going strong

Art

More Turner than Ruskin: “January 9: 1983: II” by Patrick Heron (Estate of Patrick Heron) 

Not so many years ago, before meretriciousness took over as the defining characteristic of British art, watercolour was widely recognised as the truest national medium of expression. Many reasons were advanced as to why it should be so: watercolour suits our temperate climate because paper and pigment dry slowly without cracking; its very wetness mirrors our aqueous skies and quickly changing atmosphere; it is a small-scale and modest technique; it suits our trait of stubborn independence; it is a middle-class and democratic form (from 1853, the manufacturer Rogers sold 11 million sets of one of its watercolour kits in less than 20 years), and so on. 

All these theories contain elements of truth. But watercolour is a paradoxical medium too. Unlike oil painting, it works from light to dark, it can be used wet or “dry”, it is difficult to correct and, as John Ruskin, himself a gifted practitioner, pointed out: “Water-colour, under the ordinary sketcher’s mismanagement, drops and dries pretty nearly to its own fancy — slops over every outline, clots in every shade, seams itself with undesirable edge.” However, under the management of far-from-ordinary sketchers it is an infinitely subtle and startling medium.

The general perception of British watercolour has been defined by its “golden age”, the period from 1750-1850 when the likes of Turner, Cozens, Girtin, Cotman, Cox et al elevated it from an essentially amateur and utilitarian method of painting into fine art. But there is a former life and an afterlife too. And it is this full picture that is the subject of Tate Britain’s adventurous new exhibition, Watercolour.

Although the exhibits range from an illustrated life of St Cuthbert made in Durham c. 1200 to a square field of washed colour — cadmium orange laid over with Delft blue — by Callum Innes from last year, the exhibition does not set out to show the story of watercolour in Britain but rather the variety and versatility of watercolour as a technique and also of its adherents. 

Indeed the real interest lies outside the well-represented but familiar work of the Georgian masters. If the roots of the tradition lie in the manuscript illuminations of the Middle Ages, then landscapes by Van Dyck and Wenceslas Hollar show that it was foreign artists who gave native painters a lesson in how to use the liquidity of watercolour to capture topography with a hitherto unknown freshness and immediacy. The lesson was well learned too by later generations, and taken on by such 20th-century pastoralists as Sutherland, Ravilious and Bawden.

Landscape is far from the only subject though. The medium here encompasses botanical drawings, cartography (there is an estate map of 1582 of Smallburgh in Norfolk, drawn by the surveyor John Darby, that can be viewed as a wonderful piece of abstract art avant la lettre), portraiture (Elizabethan miniatures from Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver), travel, the Bible, mysticism, war and even medicine (a painful set of documentary images commissioned during the First World War by the surgeon Harold Gilles showing soldiers with terrible facial wounds before and after surgery).

What makes it clear that one can nevertheless talk about such a thing as the British tradition, is the way that even late 20th-century abstract artists such as Patrick Heron and Howard Hodgkin can trace their roots to the great panjandrum of the watercolour, J.M.W. Turner. In his “colour beginnings” — rapid colour washes that contain the hint of sea, sky and horizon — lie the origins of later artists’ enthralment with the decorative and mood-creating effects of pigment-laden water in all its unpredictability. Turner’s greatest legacy, as this fascinating and rewarding exhibition makes clear, was not technique (he was famously secretive about his methods) but in the way he took the politeness out of the medium. His boldness proved that Ruskin’s “slops” and “clots” were not always something to be tamed but could rather be left to flow free. 

The material of painting is also central to Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance at the National Gallery. Traditionally, oil painting was invented in northern Europe as early as the 12th century, and was adopted only later in Italy, where most paintings well into the 15th century were executed in egg tempera. What headed in the opposite direction was the rediscovery of classical antiquity and its attendant humanism — the great themes of the Italian Renaissance. The figure who linked the two was Jan Gossaert, also known as Mabuse, c.1478-1532.

Little is known about the life of Gossaert. He was born a generation after the great pioneers of Netherlandish painting, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, but still his paintings mirrored the founding fathers’ fascination with architectural settings, rich fabrics, a miniaturist’s technique and a subject matter that comprised exclusively either religious scenes or portraits.

In 1508, Gossaert accompanied his patron Philip of Burgundy to Italy on a mission to Rome and brought back with him two motifs in particular, the nude and classical architecture. In introducing them into northern art, he was a transitional artist. His attempts at southern corporeality are not always successful (his flesh has an uncomfortable sheen, meant to mimic marble) but nudes such as “Hercules and Deianira” (1517), “Adam and Eve” (1520) and “Danaë” (1527) opened the way to a less ascetic and pinched-cheeked aesthetic. His portraits though are wonderfully nuanced and finely observed.

This exhibition uses Gossaert as a peg from which to hang a clutch of superlative northern artists including Van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Dirk Bouts, Gerard David and the peerless Memling. In almost all the carefully selected examples there are little hints of the mental world of Italy — be it a pose borrowed from an Italian print, a classical reference or a pagan frieze. For all the give and take, however, this show is really a tale of two Renaissances and a reconfirmation that while the northern version may not have been as grand as the southern it was every bit as rich.