British Art  

The English watercolor

In all the history of art there are few cases of a medium so intimately linked to a single nation. The technique dates from the sixteenth century—the oeuvre of Albrecht Dürer provides some striking examples—but only began to flourish in eighteenth-century England, and today continues to be considered one of that country's most remarkable artistic achievements.
Initially deemed a mere exercise—a means rather than an end—watercolor was popularized by two teachers, the Reverend William Gilpin (1724–1804) and Alexander Cozens (1717–1786). The former was the inventor of the "picturesque tour" of outdoor scenes that readily lent themselves to being painted. His trips for amateurs were an extraordinary success, and watercolor, with its minimal equipment and rapidity of execution, proved the ideal expedient for keeping track of one's travels. The Gilpin method, however, had its roots firmly in classical notions of which Cozens's vision was the absolute antithesis: starting out with random splashes of color on paper, he urged his pupils to transform them into landscapes drawn directly from their imaginations.
By the late eighteenth century these two figures had found a wide audience and generated a veritable craze, with travel, the taste for landscape, and a passion for recording one's memories combining to trigger a host of artistic vocations. British artists like Alexander Cozens's son John Robert Cozens (1752–1797) and William Pars (1742–1882) were among the first to produce watercolors of the Alps and Italy; the Louvre has the younger Cozens's Between Chamonix and Martigny – The Aiguille Verte and the museum in Rouen has Pars's View of Rome.
One of the medium's most brilliant exponents was none other than Joseph W. M. Turner (1775–1851), well represented in French collections with such early acquisitions by the Louvre as View of the Château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and more recent purchases like Nantes, the splendid watercolor from the château of the dukes of Brittany. Turner's main competitor until he left for Australia was John Glover (1767–1849), and the museum in Rouen has a characteristic Landscape by him. From the same period, Calais-born Louis Francia (1772–1839) divided his career more or less evenly between France and England, becoming both a great English watercolorist and the man who, as the teacher of Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828), was responsible for introducing the medium into France.
Bonington's generation saw the culmination of watercolor's brio and delicate luminosity, and the medium's triumphant dissemination via prints and giftbooks. Among the richest collections in France is that of the museum in Calais, with a remarkable group of works by Francia, Bonington's masterpiece View of Mont-Saint-Michel, works by David Cox (1783–1759), a View of Calais by William Callow (1812–1908), and pictures by Newton Fielding (1799–1856). Many of the watercolorists of the time traveled widely in France and the topographical interest of their works has inspired numerous acquisitions by French museums. Another impressive collection is that of the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, which is home to such superb examples of the work of Thomas Shotter Boys (1803–1874) as Chapel of the Institute; a major work, Paris: Rue St Denis, by Thomas Girtin (1775–1802); and The Tuileries and other pictures by William Wyld (1806–1889). Many other museums have acquired watercolors by contemporaries like Samuel Prout (1783–1852), whose The Lady Chapel, St Pierre, Caen is in the museum in Caen.
Among the masters of the medium we should also mention David Roberts (1796–1864), another traveler to the Middle East; especially noteworthy is his View of the Valley of the Kings, at the Fondation Custodia in Paris.
However, to limit the watercolor to landscape would be to ignore its sheer variety. Among the very different artists who have used it for other purposes are John Flaxman (1755–1826) in his Two Angels, in the Musée Dobrée in Nantes, and the handsome The Deluge by John Martin (1789–1854).
Thus the English watercolor is well represented in public collections in France. Its history is a complex one and its links with France are many and close, as these collections illustrate: without being especially focused on the medium, they have built up over the years a body of work of respectable size and variety.
Olivier Meslay