Press Release


Wednesday 16 February – Sunday 21 August 2011

Tate Britain presents a fresh assessment of the history of watercolour painting in Britain from the Middle Ages through to the present day. This major exhibition shows over 200 works including pieces by historic artists such as William Blake, Thomas Girtin and JMW Turner, through to modern and contemporary artists including Patrick Heron, Peter Doig and Tracey Emin. Spanning 800 years and celebrating the variety of ways watercolour has been used, it shows how important the medium is within British art.

Drawing out a grand history which traces the origins of watercolour back to medieval illuminated manuscripts, the exhibition reassesses the commonly held belief that the medium first flourished during a ‘golden age’ of British watercolour, from roughly 1750-1850. It reveals an older tradition evident in manuscripts, topography and miniatures. It also challenges the notion that watercolour is singularly British by showing some key watercolours from continental Europe which influenced British artists, such as examples by Anthony van Dyck and Wenceslaus Hollar.

Watercolour is the most accessible of all paint media, used widely by professionals and amateurs alike. Unlike oil paint which is viscous and slow-drying, watercolour is clean, cheap and easy to use. Before the advent of photography it was used primarily for recording eye-witness accounts. Artists used the medium because it was so versatile and portable. This exhibition shows the wide range of contexts in which watercolour was employed including documentation of exotic flora and fauna on Captain Cook’s voyages, spontaneous on-the spot-recordings of landscapes by artists such as Turner and John Sell Cotman and on the battlefield by war artists such as William Simpson and Paul Nash.

Often thought of as a medium for traditional representational painting, notably of landscape, the sea and picturesque buildings, this exhibition overturns such assumptions by introducing work by contemporary artists who have reinterpreted the medium including Andy Goldsworthy, Ian McKeever and Anish Kapoor. It also shows how these contemporary pieces form part of a longer tradition where watercolour has been used for visionary or abstract purposes with examples ranging from Blake through to the Pre-Raphaelites, Symbolists and Neo-Romantics in more recent times.

Ranging from loose, vibrant washes of colour to precise draughtsmanship, wet sponging to scratching out, the great variety of watercolour techniques are surveyed in this exhibition. It shows how exhibition culture of the 19th century inspired artists to vie with one another in the pyrotechnics of sophisticated techniques, Turner raising the stakes with new methods and levels of showmanship. This set a precedent for later painters such as A.W. Hunt, Arthur Melville and artists today who continue to push the boundaries of what the medium can do.

Watercolour is part of The Great British Art Debate supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. The exhibition is curated by a group of Tate curators headed by Alison Smith, Head of British Art to 1900. The exhibition is also accompanied by an illustrated book produced by Tate Publishing.