My name is Alison Smith, and I am the project leader for the Watercolour exhibition which is running at Tate Britain from February until August. This is the first time we’ve actually attempted to present the long history of the subject; and the aim of the exhibition is to show how watercolour is a very versatile medium. And in the exhibition, we also want to venture beyond the standard narrative of watercolour in Britain; that is, its association with landscape and topography or the representation of places.
I’m standing in the opening section of the Watercolour exhibition, which is called Intimate Knowledge, and this really looks at the early uses of the medium in Britain, roundabout the fifteenth, sixteenth century. This was a time when watercolour wasn’t called watercolour as such, but was rather referred to as draughtsmanship or tinted drawing or lining. This drawing by the Prague-born artist Wenceslas Hollar is a panoramic view of Tangier in North Africa. In his time, this would have been called a tinted drawing, or a drawing with what was called ‘dead colouring’, i.e. very sort of subtle, almost monochromatic colour. He has really produced a surveyor’s drawings. But also, there is a slight degree of idealisation, so it could almost be an English or northern European landscape; and this is of course accentuated by the rolling, undulating green hills and the move from green in the foreground to some gentle blues in the distance.
I’m standing in the section of the exhibition entitled ‘The Exhibition of Watercolour’; and this largely comprises works which were produced in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when artists sought a more public role for watercolour. And what we see happening during the course of the nineteenth century is that artists began to compete against each other, and also against painters in oil, in becoming more sophisticated in their techniques. They really wanted their works to sort of, shine off the walls and have dramatic impact, and to really compel viewers and demand their attention. So we see a lot of Gouache being added to watercolour, a lot of varnish and gum, and artists painting in layers, almost trying to disguise the fluid nature of the medium. The work I am standing in front of is by a female artist called Dorothy Webster Hawksley who really specialised totally in watercolour, although she was also associated with the tempera revival of the early twentieth century. And this painting, the Nativity, is an ambitious painting for public exhibition. I should mention that since the 1840s, women were exhibiting more in public at the watercolour societies, also the Society for Female Artists because watercolour was considered to be an appropriate area where women could actually exhibit their work in public. So all the characters in this scene apart from Joseph and the Kings are shown to be women. So you have women shown hanging up washing or taking washing down from the line. There’s another woman over on the left hand side carrying some chips in a basket. And Hawksley actually includes herself very discreetly, on the right hand side of this triptych, observing and drawing the scene. So it’s deliberately quite light, almost with these playful touches, so that she’s got the lighting in these feminine qualities to try and soften the seriousness of the history of painting tradition.
I’m now standing in the section of the exhibition entitled ‘Inner Vision’, and this really concerns artists who were really influenced by Romanticism, and the romantic idea that artists and artists’ work should be subjective and should deal with personal, interior subjects. The painting I’m standing in front of, or the drawing, rather, is by Victor Hugo, who was a French novelist, but also was an amateur artist. And he would use watercolour in combination with Gouache, ink, and also more unusual substances such as coffee grains from his cup. And on occasion it was known that he would sometimes have opened his veins and let blood seep out, and he would mix blood with other watery substances. So these are very sort of personal, interior subjects. So if you look closely – and it’s very difficult to work out what’s going on here – but you have the sense of chimneys, doorways. There’s a doorway here with sort of rusticated archway. He has blown through a straw or a tube to get this sort of tendril, spidery like effect. Just to show how the wateriness, really, of watercolour ink, can be used for fantastical purposes, for very, very private, unfathomable ends.
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