Early in the nineteenth century, watercolour made a decisive leap from the album and portfolio onto the wall. No longer content with often grudging admittance among oil painters to the Society of Artists or the Royal Academy, watercolourists founded their own exhibiting societies where they could show off their skills and the array of new materials available.
Dedicated watercolour exhibitions began in 1805, a year after the Society of Painters in Water Colours was formed in a London coffee house. A rival New Society began in 1807. As the Royal Watercolour Society and Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, these organisations still flourish today. On their walls in the early years of the nineteenth century the ‘exhibition watercolour’ became an art form in itself, one of the innovations of the age. Grand, close-framed in gold and conceived to rival oil, with sheer size at a premium, it was more than just a watercolour in an exhibition. It was a spectacle – fashionable, showy and sometimes very expensive.
Although landscape predominated in the exhibitions, especially at the increasingly conservative SPWC, watercolourists also challenged history painters or explored newly-popular narrative and genre subjects. They competed for depth or brilliance of colour, and inventive combinations of media.