Saturday, May 28, 2011


This is a fascinating exhibition which reveals what a versatile medium watercolour is. It's a mistake to judge the exhibition on who is in and who has been left out - better to develop an awareness of how artists have exploited the medium and why they chose it.

It was the medium of choice of artists engaged in scientific exploration exploring the flora and fauna of distant countries. At Ludlow Museum I did a course with Angela Gladwell who was trained as a technical illustrator at the RCA. She used to enthuse over very precise watercolour studies which naturalists used to record the structure and anatomy of rare plants and animals. So my initial interest was the ‘Natural World’ gallery

To my shame I could never work up much enthusiasm for this way of working as experienced from the book illustrations which Angela showed us. Seeing the originals in this exhibition though is a totally different experience. The drawing is so accurate and the colour laid so skilfully it takes your breath away.

My personal favourite in the natural history genre is a really striking watercolour of an osprey, with a fish in its talons, by William Macgillivray. He was a Scottish naturalist who became a very accomplished artist. I think it must have been drawn from a dead bird but drawing on his experience in the field he's placed it against a background of Scottish hills. Again he displays superb draughtsmanship supported by lovely clean washes on the feathers which gradate from a dark VanDyck Brown on the head to Burnt Umber on the scapular and tail feathers. The picture is on the Natural History website in the Macgillivray Art Collection at.

The most popular section is sure to be the Travel and Topography gallery where you see watercolours developing into romantic evocations of landscape. Many 18th Century watercolourists like Myles Birkett Foster were self taught. But it’s clear that the watercolours were built on close observation and careful drawing. Gradually although the tradition develops into more expressive styles that we’re more used to the graphite drawing is still visible as a kind of support.

There was a lovely watercolour by one of my favourite watercolourists David Cox where although the initial graphite drawing is sketchy he’s firmed up the main shapes with his washes.
Tour d’Horloge, Rouen 1829

On passing I caught a glimpse of a nice mixed media (w’col/gouache/ink) by John Piper. Watercolourists of his generation like Paul Nash, and Eric Ravilious are worth a closer look. I say on passing because after half an hour or so there was fire alert and the building was cleared. So I was spared the horrors of Emin and her contemporaries but I do regret not having more time with my two favourite ‘Blues’.

Arthur Melville ‘The Blue Night, Venice’

and JMW Turner ‘The Blue Rigi, Sunrise’

Don’t be disappointed if your favourites are not shown just immerse yourself in the sheer variety of the medium. The message I got is that if you want to ‘up your game’ brush up your drawing.

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