Hello, my name is Alison Smith and I am the lead curator of Tate Britain’s forthcoming exhibition Watercolour at Tate Britain which opens on 16 February. My team and I are extremely excited about this exhibition and hope you will enjoy it as much as we have enjoyed putting it together over the last 17 months
Over the coming weeks, we will be posting a wonderful selection of blogs from a wide variety of voices who have selected works to write about from this show – from David Attenborough to Sheila Hancock to several of the contemporary artists whose watercolours feature in the Watercolour exhibition.
Some of the most iconic works of art in Tate’s Collection are watercolours – Turner’s Blue Rigi, Blake’s River of Life, as well as works by Paul Nash and David Jones. Despite this, the medium of watercolours remains an underrated one. Even though Tate has many thousands of watercolours, this is the first time that we have done an exhibition on watercolour from its origins in illuminated manuscripts right through to the present day. And we have brought together some truly remarkable works – from the jewel-like brilliancy of Hilliard’s Elizabeth I to Edward Burra’s large and sombre Mexican Church, and beyond to the present day with works by artists such as Tracey Emin, Hayley Tompkins and Anish Kapoor.
Our show aims to reveal the extraordinary and varied, if uneven history of watercolour through the centuries. Historically, the practice of watercolour has often been seen as a means to an end – done for practical purposes, such as botanical illustration, topographical depiction or as designs. However, as it evolved, it became a medium in its own right, and watercolours were soon prized for their colours, fluidity and translucent qualities.
So, the aim of Watercolour is to survey these changes over time. For example, when we think of watercolour, many of us think of landscape or flower painting (and there are some wonderful examples of those in our show, such asGeorg Dionysius Ehret’s 18th-century work Study of Asphodeline Lutea). But watercolour has also been used for documentation, for observation, for expressing inner fantasies and responses to immediate sensory experiences, including Dulac’s The Entomologist’s Dream 1909, and Richard Parke Bonnington’s Verona, Piazza dell’Erbe 1826–7.
And through our selection of watercolours (which can only be a limited selection) we are aiming to show how the status of watercolour has been contested in the past. We know that watercolour could too readily be associated with the amateur artist, but it has similarly been used by artists to display their artistic talents.
Also, what we would like to explore in this exhibition, is the question – is watercolour a particularly British phenomenon? Has it flourished because we are an island nation and were propelled to travel beyond our shores? And how about now? Is it possible to maintain this view when we exist in a multicultural society and within a global context? Do please send us your views on the exhibition.
Alison Smith is lead curator of Watercolour and Curator (Head of British Art to 1900), Tate Britain.