In 1781, from a small art materials shop on the Strand in London, an Englishman named William Reeves started selling his latest invention: hard cakes of paint.
Roughly equal in size to a box of matches, and offered in an assortment of colours such as Prussian blue, indigo and vermilion, the dried blocks were presented in a wooden box light enough to carry under one arm. Beneath them was a drawer just big enough for a palette, a few sheets of paper and brushes. The only thing an artist needed to provide in order to work was water.
Watercolour paint itself wasn’t a new invention. During the Middle Ages it had been used for manuscript illuminations, and in the Renaissance Albrecht Dürer adopted the medium to create wildlife studies such as Young Hare.
Reeves’s creation, however, was accompanied by a blossoming interest in the natural world, described by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798 as loving ‘fields and woods and mountains with almost a visionary fondness’. By making paint more portable, Reeves freed artists to work spontaneously as they explored the great outdoors. This afforded them the opportunity to do with the brush what the Romantic poets achieved with a pen.
As a result, the following 100 years became known as Britain’s ‘Golden Age’ of watercolour painting.
The spontaneity and swiftness of watercolour painting, with its rich colours and exact tonal control, made it perfect for capturing fleeting light, while free brushwork and rough-textured paper could be used to enhance the drama of natural phenomena.
Harnessing these techniques, artists such as Thomas Girtin, John Sell Cotman, David Cox and Peter de Wint discovered lucid and expressive ways to represent nature — and, in some cases, to produce works that prefigured Modernism and abstraction.
Many of them travelled to remote corners of the British Isles in search of the most stirring landscapes, which prior to the advent of the railways was often an arduous undertaking. A handful even employed watercolours to depict the exotic subjects they encountered on Grand Tours and journeys to the far flung ‘Oriental’ lands of Egypt, Turkey and the Middle East.
In 1804 the Society of Painters in Water Colours was formed with a view to sharing new technical skills, which ultimately stimulated further stylistic advancements. It also promoted the medium in an increasingly competitive art market.
From 10 to 24 March, Christie’s will offer a selection of Golden Age watercolours in Dramas of Light and Land: The Martyn Gregory Collection of British Art.
In the film above, Christie’s British Drawings and Watercolours specialist Annabel Kishor and writer and cultural historian Professor Alexandra Harris discuss how artists changed the character of landscape painting, as shown in lots from the sale including rugged views of Welsh and Scottish mountains by the pioneering painter John Varley and his pupil William Turner of Oxford.
Another of the paintings they examine, by Nicholas Pocock, depicts Fingal’s Cave in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, a rock formation that also made a strong impression on the Romantic poets Keats and Wordsworth, as well as the composer Felix Mendelssohn. Harris reminds us of Keats’s poem On Visiting Staffa, in which he describes the cave as ‘this cathedral of the sea’.
The success of these artists, explains Harris, stemmed from their passion for the drama of the British landscape. Moving on to a painting by William Green of Rydale Park in Cumbria, Kishor speaks of what was an ‘extraordinary demand for this type of view from new tourists coming to the Lake District’.
Some of the painters’ pioneering watercolour techniques — such as leaving blank, white space to illustrate clouds and layering washes of paints with varying opacity — would play a role in shaping the styles of modern British painters in the 20th century, including the brothers John and Paul Nash, both of whom are also represented in the sale.
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‘That’s why Martyn Gregory’s collection is so wonderful,’ adds Kishor. ‘It leads right up into the 20th century, and it’s fascinating to look at these works alongside one another.’
The Martyn Gregory Collection of British Art will be on view at Christie’s in London, 14-24 March 2022