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

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'The Blue Rigi, Sunrise' 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Blue Rigi, Sunrise 1842

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.

William Blake, 'The River of Life' circa 1805
William Blake
The River of Life circa 1805
Pen and ink and watercolour on paper
image: 305 x 336 mm
support: 442 x 432 mm
Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949

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.

Hayley Tompkins Days Series 2007
Contemporary piece: Hayley Tompkins Days Series 2007


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.


Richard Bolingbroke

Alison, this is wonderful news. having grown up in England, my pilgrimages from the wilds of Dorset to see the Blakes and Turners were pivotal in my artist growth. I currently reside in San Francisco, and exhibit my large-scale watercolors nationally. Being self-taught, they are unlike most any other. Bold, bright, intense, not the soft watery look. My recent series Rituals and Meditations can be viewed on my website. I hope you have time to take a look, or take a look at my Facebook Richard Bolingbroke Studio where I have some work from my recent series on Robots! To me watercolor is a vital and important as any other painting medium. Its also non-toxic, portable and uses paper, one of the most long lived supports if cared for well.I hope this show continues to push for its acceptance a as painting medium thats as important and useful as any other, as you can witness with Hockneys recent landscapes and portraits. And mine too!

deirdre mcardle

that's interesting emi,I suppose in the grip of an emotion,anger,fear,sorrow ,love(is that one?) one might find it hard to access the pragmatic side of making a work .Hand eye co-ordination,large muscle control, manual dexterity etc. Some artists tried to harness emotion but seemed to wind up with frenzy and others with sentimentality.

emi matsui

i have liked water color when i dreamed to live in traveling life. now i associate the word "emotion" with water color. i am curious, is it okay to display a work which made by emotion and sincerity at public place?

deirdre mcardle

fuzzy logic? Angela, ie. probability . The double whammy of the beauty yet transience of nature ie. our awareness that light confers this contingent reality that ultimately is not the real thing (led to Impressionism probably ) it's the conflicting notions that causes the emotion.


It is difficult to articulate the emotions Turner evokes with in me. His water colours do speak to my soul.

I do like bathing in the beauty of the blue lake of Lucerne.

Tursan Raja

Really looking forward to this one. Watercolor being one of my personal favourite mediums; it will be just amazing to see works by artists of such varied styles and eras together. Good luck to the team and thanks for putting up this show.

Martin Everard


Why is there not a watercolour painting by Barbara Everard in your exhibition? Surely one of the foremost 20th century's botanical artists should warrant a place in a show which even includes works of art not even using the watercolour medium? Have you never heard of the artists? I think that it if so that is a pity. Many of her works will be on display at the RHS London Orchid and Botanical Art Show (March 18th, 19th and 20th 2011) and you will be amazed at quality and finesse of her work. Quote EVBE or her name, Barbara Everard, if and when you book tickets on 0845 612 1253. Sorry for the plug - but you and the Tate has missed a trick, I feel.

deirdre mcardle

well that's lovely Richard,all a bit like iconography commissioned by the Masons,are you a Mason?

Rosanne Guille

I have spent thirty years capturing the essence, in watercolour, of my Channel Island-home of Sark (recently designated, as the world's first 'dark sky island') As an art student in the UK in 1993 I saw the 'Great Age of British Watercolours' exhibition at the RA, and was blown away! I will do my utmost to make it over the sea to experience the Tate Britain's take on this incredible medium. I am currently planning a project in conjunction with the 'Artists for Nature Foundation' to paint, draw and sculpt the wildlife and landscape and people of Sark where watercolour will play a big part. Long live watercolour.


Hello, I just visited ur website, ur work is really great with loads of inspirations. I used to do watercolour as well but i could not find a breakthrough at a certain point so I moved to other fields(chinese painting and photography). Anyway, keep your great jobs. well done.

Gerald Porter

This exhbition is timely and represent the burgeoning interest inn the Art of Watercolour.It has latterly been neglected but the works in the Tate Archive themselves and the increasing interest in this medium will re assert the importance of artists using this fluid medium in their work.The works themselves have an intrinsic importance and represent the various facets of inspiration captured in this medium.

George Warrington

This is a great show, full of variety and technical brilliance, but why is Tracey Emins work included? Her absolute inability to paint or draw is highlighted brutally when put in this context - it should have been laughable viewing her poor handiwork here but it was actually a bit sad...

Barbara Hunt

My thanks for 'Watercolour' go to Alison Smith and all her colleauges and collaborators. The Exhibition was a work of art in itself. The exhibits were displayed in a very imaginative way and the 'viewing public' able to move around and discuss between themselves. I personally found it delightful to hear (and sometimes answer quietly) the queries of fellow viewers. The watercolour on vellum miniatures drew gasps and comments regarding dexterity and eyesight! At times exchanges of knowledge regarding aspects of topography e.g. William Capon's Demolition Site brought comments regarding the present city 'skyscape' opportunities. J.F. Lewis's 'Hhareem Life'was poured over 'how did he do that' (maybe ox gall in the water helped together with his skill?). Contrasting Victor Hugo's Souvenir de Normande stark but fascinating use of watercolour plus ink. As a teacher I have always encouraged students to 'have a go' to overcome the diffidence that some have to express themselves. Noting some comments on the Blog, yes Emile Nolde would have been a worthy contributor and yes, so many painters now are doing splendid work in watercolour, but there is a limit on the space... even at the Tate. Thankyou once again, Alison.. I wish I lived nearer maybe, to form a 'groupie' group on all aspects of watercolour. Tate Publishing have produced an excellent handy catalogue with good colour reproduction, very useful for encouraging students not only to paint, but make the 'well-worth' journey to London.

wendy reynolds

I was very disappointed in the exhibition. I am a teacher of watercolour. I enjoyed the early rooms very much, although would have preferred a chronological approach. BUT why have you displayed so many Turners? Perhaps you could have replaced the last display with a David Hockney? There are so many watercolourists you could have shown instead of the facile 'paintings' in the final galleries...how can a few squiggles in pencil be a watercolour? and as for the final installation..a knicker pink hammocky thing..ugh. It would have been good to have seen a Nolde, there are so many excellent painterly watercolourists in this country practising today..not all of them 'realistic'.

Kavya Hughes

Lovely exhibition which I presumed until I found a few foreign names, was a history of British watercolours. As it is not, I wonder why you have not included any of Emil Nolde's amazingly brilliant and inventive pure watercolours? They would have been more of an inspiration than some of the works shown, I believe. Would the eponymous museum in Schleswig Holstein not lend you one? Do you think no modern artist here has heard of him?

Louise Davidge

What a wonderful time I had today, thank you! I was fascinated by how the various ways watercolour has been used. I particularly loved those paintings that looked stunning from a distance, in the way that impressionist art does, but on closer inspection revealed a wealth of tiny detail. The miniatures were amazing especially the one where it looked as if the artist may have painted his wife (Oliver?). Speaking as a complete amateur the exhibition thrilled and educated. I couldn't help feel that the Emins were a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, but what do I know - may be in future times their message will be more obvious to uneducated eyes. I won't even start on the pink thingy at the end! Thanks Tate, great day, everyone should visit!