Watercolours Explored at the Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam’s recent exhibition, ‘Watercolour: Elements of Nature’, is a concise tour de force, presenting a medium that while often subtle is at its best spectacularly beautiful.  With works drawn from the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, the show traces the history of watercolour from the 16th century to the present day, at the same time showing its vast technical range and adaptability.

Nicholas-Hilliard-1547-1619-Henry-Percy-9th-Earl-of-Northumberland-c.1595-299x250At one extreme are miniatures, with examples by Nicholas Hilliard (‘Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland’, c.1595, above) and Isaac Oliver, the watercolour portraits painted onto ivory or vellum with brushes of only a hair’s breadth.  Plants were studied with  similar precision; a Magnolia painted on vellum (1811, below right) by the famed botanical painter, Pierre-Joseph Redoute, looks so immaculate it is difficult to discern any brushstroke at all. Gum arabic was frequently mixed with the paint to give a glossier and more transparent effect as well as heightening the intensity of the colours.

Pierre-Joseph-Redouté 1811 Magnolia macrophylla-1811 vellum

It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that watercolour reached its peak.  Alexander Cozens’s paintings illustrate his radical ‘blot technique’ by which he encouraged his students to create landscape compositions from the imagination by starting with a blot of ink or watercolour (earning him the nickname ‘Mr Dingy Digit’!). This echoed a move away from the rigidly topographical towards ideas of the ‘sublime’ and Romanticism, which became fashionable in art and landscape design in the late 18th century.

1131299John White Abbott, a pupil of Francis Towne (the stunning ‘The Source of the Arveyron’, 1781, was shown at the recent Tate Watercolours exhibition), shows the influence of his master in his use of pen and ink outlines with a thin colour wash, for instance in ‘Trees at Peamore Park, Exeter’, 1799 (left), which flattens the forms making them both decorative and slightly ethereal.

Cornelius-Varley-Three-studies-of-Mount-Snowdon-c.1805Cornelius Varley’s ‘Three Studies of Mount Snowdon’ of c.1805 (right) shows even looser and more experimental brushwork. Designed as a sketch and therefore not comparable to the finished pieces next to which it hangs, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the artist playing with watercolour’s unique capacity for the graduation of colour tones.

Peter De Wint is an artist I knew little about, but who, along with David Cox, was one of the great English watercolorists. Examples of both artists’ work are chosen to show their use of variously textured papers – Cox used ‘Scotch’ wrapping paper for its rough texture and dark flecks – and paint used on a dry brush, diluted or with gum arabic, to achieve different results that bring alive the contrasts within their landscapes (Peter De Wint, ‘Yorkshire Fells, c.1812, watercolour with gum arabic, below).

Yorkshire-fells, c.1812, wc with gum arabic, Peter de Wint

I have always loved John Sell Cotman, whose style I associated with that of Francis Towne; here some very different works are picked out in which he uses a thickening agent to create much more intense colours than the typical pale washes of ‘A Shady Pool’ or even ‘Dolgelly’ (1804-5, below top).  ‘Postwick Grove’ (c.1835-40, below bottom) and ‘Bass Rock’ both use a deep turquoise shade to turn the pallid idyll of an English afternoon sky into a vivid, dusky, almost mystical firmament.

Cotman-Dolgelly 1804-5

Postwick-Grove, c.1835-40, wc, Cotman

Several artist focus closely – like the earlier botanical painters – on the tiny details of nature; William Dyce’s ‘A Landscape Study of Rocks and Grasses’ is as 1132996immaculately observed as Durer’s famous ‘Great Piece of Turf’ (1503) while Ruskin’s ‘In the Pass of Killiecrankie’ (1857) uses watercolour with a more opaque bodycolour on board to evoke the rocky banks of a Scottish burn – every minute crack of granite and frond of heather is extolled in paint. 7.-The-Magic-Apple-Tree c.1830Samuel Palmer also mixes his paint with gum arabic or similar medium in ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ (c.1830, left), using this alongside Indian ink to create vivid colours that achieve a depth, solidity and substance at the centre where the apples cluster.  Palmer was a follower of William Blake whose visionary subjects and technical experimentation he inherited, standing apart from the mainstream British landscape watercolour tradition. John Linnell, who introduced Palmer and Blake, is also featured, though his lovely ‘Sunset’ (1812) is without the strange otherworldliness conjured by his colleagues.

Shakespeare-Cliff, Dover, c.1825, wc, Turner

Then of course there is Turner, master of the watercolour.  Here there is only ‘Shakespeare Cliff, Dover’ (c.1825, above) to represent him – though an excellent choice to show how his twin interests in the effects of nature and the use of watercolour as a medium sometimes resulted in almost abstract, highly expressionistic compositions that were well ahead of his time. (There was, however, an room adjacent dedicated to the Ruskin bequest of Turner watercolours, full of exquisite examples such as ‘Brunnen, Lake Lucerne in the Distance’ 1841-3, ‘Orleans, Twilight’, c.1826-31, and ‘Venice from the Lagoon’, c.1840).Giudecca, 1913, wc over graphite Sargent


Appropriate then that he should immediately precede the French and English Impressionist and Post-Imp watercolorists.  This last, ‘modern’, section of the exhibition is disparate – but understandably so, as art diverged in the late 19th and early 20th century into so many different movements.  And it doesn’t matter given the objective of this show – rather, considering that it represents the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, is says a lot for the eye the purchaser and the calibre of bequests – for each work selected illustrates an outstanding mastery of the medium, each in an entirely different style running the gamut from fluid washes of sunlight or mist made solid through to carefully composed still lifes emerging from a void of white paper. (John Singer Sargent, ‘Giudecca’, 1913, above; Whistler, ‘Grey and Silver, North Sea’, c.1884, below).

Grey and Silver, North Sea, c.1884, wc, Whistler

Pissarro’s landscape studies of Eragny and Gisors in springtime sing with limpid colour redolent of sunlight after rain; Signac’s Mediterranean scenes of boats in harbour place colour in careful harmony, a light-handed lesson in Chevreul’s theories; Cezanne’s ‘Still Life – Flowers in a Jar’ (c.1890, below left) uses pale tints of watery colour to outline the skeleton of his composition, leaving the bare space to speak of volumes.

8.-Still-life-flowers-in-a-jar c.1890Philip Wilson Steer, a leading British Impressionist and founder of the New English Art Club, now out of fashion and usually overlooked, is represented by a loose watercolour sketch, ‘Chalk Pits, Painswick’ (1915) – a short reprieve from his war work as an artist with the Royal Navy. British Modernism is represented by Paul Nash’s ‘Monster Field Studies’ – surreal, anthropomorphic postwar depictions of the ancient landscape of southern England – and by David Jones’ intricate yet ephemeral interior ‘The Shepherdess’ (1930); the contemporary finale by a lone Barbara Rae abstract that looked a bit lost by the door.  I had peered in at every painting, initially interested in the technique, then transfixed by its small, beautiful, unknowable world; an hour later I had reached the far end of the room and left with energy and inspiration.

Sargent and his Friends

Dr PozziI already knew Sargent painted sublimely, and would have been probably my top choice as a portraitist had I been living in the Edwardian age.  But ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’ is just as interesting in elucidating the sitters as the artist.  The National Portrait Gallery exhibition brings alive a whole society of late Victorian and Edwardian artists, poets, writers, actors and intellectuals, their vivid personalities and characteristic expressions captured in Sargent’s luscious and fluid brushstrokes.

Dr. Pozzi (1881, right), the ‘father of modern French gynaecology’, stands full length in a scarlet dressing gown like a Renaissance prince or cardinal.

NPG 1767; Henry James by John Singer SargentHenry James (1913, left), a close friend of Sargent and a fellow American expat, is portrayed on his 70th birthday, a successful novelist who is yet contemplative and somewhat inscrutable.

In contrast, the portrait of the poet Coventry Patmore (1894, below right) depicts a sprightly, energetic, and fiercely intelligent old man, standing braced with a witty observation or acerbic comment on his lips.

NPG 1079; Coventry Kersey Deighton Patmore by John Singer Sargent

Robert Louis Stevenson is captured at home in two small and enigmatic portraits, one interesting composition featuring him, gaunt yet vigorous, striding across the low ceilinged room, his wife sitting incongruously doll-like in the background, the other displaying his long frame and expressive hands, arranged in a wicker chair as if in the midst of meditative conversation (1887, below).

Robert Louis Stevenson 1887

Vernon Lee (or Violet Paget, 1881, below right) was a woman of letters, feminist and pacifist – and a childhood friend of Sargent’s whom he portrays with tenderness and insight.  The rapid brushstrokes suggest that she has just turned with lips parted as she engages in debate or badinage with her hosts, her eyes behind wire spectacles shining with intelligence and passion.

Vernon Lee 1881 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925W. Graham Robertson (1894, below left) epitomises the youthful dandy of the fin-de-siecle with his Chesterfield coat and elegant cane; the slim pale boy with his worldly pose would become a well-known illustrator and stage and costume designer, and later a playwright. Sargent depicts him in the muted grey-toned harmonies of Whistler.

W. Graham Robertson

The exhibition follows a chronological path to a certain extent, and mid-way through presents a roomful of personalities with whom Sargent lived in Broadway, Worcestershire, from 1885-1889.  Here, the Tate’s famously ethereal Chinese-lantern lit nocturne ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ (1885-6) is placed in context; the girls were modelled on Polly and Dorothy Barnard, the daughters of one of the Broadway artists, Frederick Barnard, whose wife is also depicted here in a more traditional portrait format.



There are two interior scenes in this gallery that also stand apart from the portrait genre.  One depicts the Besnard family celebrating a child’s birthday; the other is ‘Le Verre de Porto’ (1884, right) which shows Sargent’s hostess in Sussex, Edith Vickers, as if captured unaware in a moment of reverie.  It is a scene more akin to Sickert with its low artificial lighting, domestic setting and sense of an unspoken private narrative – the cropping of her husband’s figure at the extreme right of the painting being another Sickertian trope, though one introduced by Impressionist painters such as Degas who were influenced by the recently available Japanese print.

Group with Parasols c.1904-5

At the far end of the exhibition, beyond the impressive array of portraits from the London, New York and Boston years of the  1890s and 1900s, is a small gallery of paintings made on European travels during these years which again show an alternative approach to the formal portrait.  ‘Group with Parasols’ (c.1904-5, left) is one of a series of ‘Siesta’ pictures that Sargent painted on a trip to the Italian Alps, in which four sleeping figures are almost indistinguishable from each other and the verdant pasture, precedence given to the effects of dappled sunlight and rhythmic composition – a loose, Impressionist style technique that was still extremely radical to British audiences.

The Fountain 1907

‘The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati’ (1907, right) captures the artist Jane de Glehn painting, with her husband Wilfrid lounging beside her on the balustrade surrounding a fountain.  Like the Broadway interiors, this composition looks beyond simple portraiture to introduce a narrative element – that of the relationship between the Jane and Wilfrid – while also acting as a record of place and time, culture and mores, more completely than an individual portrait ever can.

Combining an artistic retrospective with what almost amounts to a visual biography of the artist, ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’ is fascinating, informative and full of character – an exhibition model that I hope the NPG will repeat.