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Academies, Sketching Parties and Societies
Landscape artists in London at the turn of the 18th century formed themselves into a number of groups ranging from informal sketching parties to organised societies. Watercolour painting and sketching was undertaken in a community atmosphere with flourishing relationships between master and pupil, patron and artist, and between friends, all of which encouraged the development of the medium.
The most interesting and influential informal gathering of artistic minds during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was at the house of Dr Thomas Monro (1759 - 1833). It was the diarist Joseph Farington who wrote that 'Dr Monro's house is like an academy in the evening', hence the affectionate description of his 'Drawing Academy'. Monro was a gifted amateur artist and collector who was also a physician, numbering the artist John Robert Cozens among his patients. He encouraged artists such as John Sell Cotman, Thomas Girtin, William Henry Hunt, John Laporte, and J.M.W. Turner, to gather at his houses in London and Bushey to copy his drawings of the early masters including Alexander and John Robert Cozens, Thomas Gainsborough and Paul Sandby.
An interesting offshoot of the 'Academy' was the Sketching Society, founded in 1799 with members such as Cotman, Francia, Girtin, and Varley. The influences of many of these artists can be seen across this collection and the influence of Monro's 'Academy' cannot be underestimated.
The first formal association of watercolour artists included John Varley among its founder members. The Society of Painters in Water-Colour, or O.W.S. met for the first time on 30 November 1804 and of the 275 drawings in the first exhibition the largest number were by Varley, over 42 in all. The Rev. Gilpin presided over the first two years of the Society, and over the years its members included William Callow, David Cox, George Arthur Fripp, James Holland, William Henry Hunt, John Frederick Lewis, John 'Warwick' Smith, and William Turner of Oxford, all of whom are represented in the collection.
By the 1830s the Old Watercolour Society had itself become a conservative and exclusive body and it was considered that members ran a monopoly that was somewhat mercenary. In 1832, in response to its decline, the New Society of Painters in Watercolours or N.W.S., was established. Following the establishment of the second Society the two became great rivals - a rivalry which lasted right until the end of the century.
The Old Watercolour Society was housed in Pall Mall East, close to the Royal Academy and National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, while the New Society, which changed its name to the Institute of Painters in Water-colours in 1865, also operated from Pall Mall until 1883 when it was moved to Piccadilly opposite Burlington House (where the Royal Academy moved in 1868). The sour relationship that existed between the two societies persisted despite many attempts to amalgamate them including a Royal Commission in 1863. In the meantime a further development occurred that was good for the growth in interest of watercolours, not long after the commission, in the 1870s, the Royal Academy itself became more positive about the exhibition of watercolours and the merits of the medium. From the 1880s the Academy devoted a gallery in the summer exhibition to watercolour painting, where the smaller and more delicate works could be examined without being overshadowed or compared unfavourably with larger oil paintings.
Exhibition at the two watercolour societies was however restricted to members only therefore it was extremely difficult for young watercolourists without established reputations to gain membership, so exhibiting to the public for young artists was made considerably easier when the first 'General Exhibition of Watercolour Drawings' was held at the Dudley Gallery in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. The exhibition was organised by a committee of both connoisseurs and artists whose object was to establish as they stated in the preface to their catalogue:
'a gallery, which, while exclusively devoted to drawings as distinguished from oil paintings, should not in its use by exhibitors involve membership of a society. These two conditions are not at present fulfilled by any London exhibition. The watercolour societies reserve their walls entirely for members, while those galleries which are comparatively open to all exhibitors (such as that of the Royal Academy) afford but a limited and subordinate space to all works in other materials than oil.'
The Dudley was an enormous success and showed both conservative and advanced watercolours by both professionals and amateurs.
A further gallery, the Fine Art Society, was opened in 1875, and from the start they held exhibitions of works by contemporary watercolour artists. At the same time more established dealers like Agnew's were active in buying and selling watercolours by the leading contemporary artists of the day and held annual exhibitions devoted to drawings. Outside London other societies mushroomed including the Royal Scottish Society of Painters and Watercolourists in 1878 and the Royal Scottish Academy, which like its British equivalent exhibited watercolours and included watercolourists among its associates.
Watercolour had come a long way from its routes in topography. Through independent exhibition bodies instead of work for engravers, which had often dictated a small scale, artists had enlarged both their range of colour and the size of their work in order to impress the public.
By the end of the 19th century each medium both watercolour and oil was accepted in its own right and the professional rivalry between the two decreased.