When JMW Turner died in 1851, it seemed to mark the end of a Golden Age of British watercolour landscape painting. Since then, his immersive evocations of the outdoors have been seen as the culmination of a tradition that originated in the mid-18th century, when topographical draughtsmen took a new interest in working outdoors, moving away from the classicising landscapes of Gainsborough and Claude. The extent to which this narrative has persisted is demonstrated by this exhibition, the first to be dedicated to British watercolour landscapes from the century following Turner’s death.
For all that art history has neglected watercolours of the Victorian era and beyond, the medium enjoyed enormous popularity throughout that period as both a pastime and a commodity. As the middle and upper classes explored a landscape made newly accessible by the introduction of the railways, 19th century artists both amateur and professional took to heart John Ruskin’s entreaty to ‘go to Nature’, reproducing it in painstaking detail and often painting en plein air.
New societies, some of which were dedicated to watercolour landscapes, provided opportunities for artists to show and sell their work in a market buoyed up by a growing tourist industry. Ambitious, large scale renditions of Britain’s most scenic places were popular with a new breed of wealthy industrialist, competing with oil paintings in both size and grandeur. For less affluent collectors, watercolours provided a means to acquire fashionable paintings at a fraction of the cost of oil paintings.
Taking its title from a 1949 book of essays by the critic Geoffrey Grigson, this exhibition explores the stylistic and interpretative range of watercolour landscapes from the period 1850-1950. Grigson’s remark that landscapes are ‘places of the mind’ provides a thread of continuity, with highly finished Victorian confections, and the dreamlike and sometimes imaginary landscapes of Henry Moore, linked by their powerful sense of place.
In a century of upheaval, with the railways, industrialisation and war posing threats of all sorts to the British countryside, landscape painting served as a vehicle for individual responses to change, reflecting the nuances and tensions of a society in flux. From celebratory Ruskinian treatments that perceive the divine in nature, to scenes like Helen Allingham’s Cowdray Cottage, an imagined but persuasive rustic idyll, in this exhibition landscape painting emerges as an emotional, even spiritual response as much as an impression of observed reality. This is nowhere more evident than in paintings produced in response to conflict, from the Crimean War of 1853-6, through two world wars. Just as the ravaged landscapes of the Western Front became for several artists a metaphor for the human cost of World War One, so the subdued palette and sense of ceaseless movement in Paul Nash’s drawings of the sea evoke his troubled state of mind in its aftermath. Painted at Dymchurch on the Kent coast, Nash was fascinated by the stark linearity of the concrete sea defences there, which in their contrast to the unruly sea appealed to his keen sense of the uncanny.