Watercolour as a characteristically English medium for landscape painting.
Watercolour painting has been used for hundreds of years by Egyptian, Chinese, Italian Renaissance, and Dutch artists such as Durer (1)
Despite this, it was 18th Century English landscape artists that are most well know for the medium. Artists such as John Constable, JMW Turner, Paul Sandby, John Cozens, Thomas Girtin, Francis Towne, John Sell Cotman and Peter de Wint embraced the medium (1). Many of these used watercolours to create final pieces but many artists including Constable and Turner would also use watercolours to go out into the landscape and make sketches in preparation for large oils (1). Initially these paintings were monochromatic such as those by Cozens but later, more colour was introduced and watercolours became more vibrant.
Venice, Storm at Sunset – JMW Turner, 1840
The so called “Golden Age of Watercolour” roughly stretched from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century in Britain (2). The reason for the strong association of English artists and watercolour is perhaps due to the popularity of the Grand Tour which saw many English artists visiting France and Italy. This exposure to paintings such as those of Claude and Poussin featuring the classical landscape and natural setting, led to the popularity of the landscape genre in Britain when on their return they began to explore the landscape of their own country (3, 4). Turner painted Glacier and Source of the Aveyron, Chamonix immediately after his tour in 1802 (5).
The demand for topographical images also drove the rise of the genre, as artists like Paul & Thomas Sandby, and Thomas Malton II were employed by the military to record the geography of the land or by land owners to record their houses and grounds (4).
For practical reasons, watercolour may have then became popular with artists because they were much easier than oils to take into the countryside for sketching. Less paraphernalia is required, less cleaning and watercolours dry much quicker so transport is easier.
The artists also found it a useful medium to capture fleeting atmospheric changes in light and weather. Constable used watercolour as well as oil to sketch the different cloud formations and inscribed the date, time and weather conditions on them (6). He would then use these sketches as an aide memoir when painting his full size oil paintings (2).
These artists exhibited their work London but they found the medium was not initially given as high status as oil paintings. In the following years, the Society of Painters in Water-Colours was founded in 1804 and later other watercolour groups formed as the medium grew in popularity. Here these artists could exhibit their work without being overshadowed by oils (2).
1. Harper, S. (1994) The Complete Watercolour Artist. New Jersey: Chartwell Books
2. The Metropolitan Museum – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bwtr/hd_bwtr.htm, 01/05/15
4. The Victoria and Albert Museum – http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/british-watercolours-landscape-genre/ 03/05/15
5. Honour, H and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. 7th Edition. London: Lawrence King Publishing
6. The British Museum – http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/j/john_constable,_a_study_of_clo.aspx, 02/05/15
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