Room 4: The rise of watercolour

David Cox, ‘Tour d’Horloge, Rouen’ 1829
David Cox
Tour d’Horloge, Rouen 1829

The rise of watercolour

The British excelled in the technique of watercolour, which was often called the ‘British medium’.

They had also pioneered the printmaking processes used in its reproduction, to considerable international acclaim. Three-quarters of the British works listed in the 1824 Salon catalogue were watercolour paintings. Many had the technical sophistication and imposing scale that London viewers were used to. But they shocked French critics, for whom watercolour was a frivolous pastime, incompatible with vital creative expression.

In his 1824 Salon review, Etienne Delécluze warned that those artists who ‘drew in watercolours for the ladies’ rather than ‘painted in oils for posterity’ would ruin themselves and the French school. Such opposition could not suppress the groundswell of French interest in watercolours. Much of this was due to private dealers in France, who stocked their shops with British examples, and publishers who pandered to the fashion for sumptuously illustrated travel books by importing British draughtsmen and engravers for the task.