Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


71 Composition: Sunset c.1825-30

Watercolour, gouache and gum arabic with sponging and stopping-out on laminated wove paper 22.2 x 18.3 (8 3/4x 7 1/4)


Born the son of a prolific and successful landscape painter of the same name, George Barret the younger was a founder member of the Society of Painters in Watercolour. Like most of the early members of the Society, he was primarily a landscape painter, his early exhibits chiefly scenes along the Thames in the vicinity of London. However, from the 1820s his exhibition staple became the idealised Claudian landscape, and indeed it is this side of his work for which he is best known today. Exhibited under such generalised titles as 'Twilight', 'Evening' or 'Sunset', these compositions were invariably executed in a range of warm, especially brownish colours, 'as though he were trying to paint not merely a Claude but the golden varnish that covers a Claude' (Hardie 1967, vol.2, p.129). Some years later he was to publish his palette of predominantly warm colours - Raw Sienna, Indian Red, Brown Madder, Gamboge and Vandyke Brown, for example - in his Letters on the Theory and Practice of Water-Colour Painting (1840).

The Society of Painters in Watercolour (today the Royal Watercolour Society) was founded in 1804 and held its first exhibition in April 1805. Attempting to emulate the effect of oils, the watercolourists now began to produce work which was both stronger in tone and richer and deeper in colour. However, the increased density of colouring resulted in a greater proportion of the paper's white surface being obscured (and a corresponding loss of reflected light), so the watercolourists then had to invent methods to bring the white of the paper back. One way was by sponging or scraping, both of which Barret uses here: it is sponging which contributes to the noticeable woolliness of texture; whilst scraping brings into prominence the bright ball of the setting sun. (Barret originally intended the sun to appear lower and towards the centre, but scraped back too far and made a hole in the paper, which he subsequently disguised by laminating the sheet, and then painting over the hole in a darker tone.) Another way of achieving lights was to mask a selected area of the white paper with a 'stopping-out' agent to prevent it being obscured by subsequent wash layers, a technique associated especially with Barret's work and that of Francis Oliver Finch (1802-1862), a member of the Society as well as a peripheral member of 'The Ancients' (see under no.97). Both artists used wax as a stopping-out agent, especially for lights in foliage (Bayard 1981, p.20).

Barret gained a firm contemporary reputation but died in poverty. Samuel Palmer, the most famous of 'The Ancients', commented in his 1824 notebook: 'Carefully avoid getting into that style which is elegant and beautiful but too light and superficial; not learned enough - like Barret. He has a beautiful sentiment and it is derived from Nature, but Nature has properties which lie still deeper' (quoted Bayard 1981, p.44).

Anne Lyles

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.176 no.71, reproduced in colour p.177