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Painting in watercolour has never lost its attraction. It is by no means an easy technique to master but it is considered an easy medium to dismiss and of course many think of it as a deeply unfashionable medium for the 21st Century.
At present there are two exhibitions on in London that promote the great names of English landscape painting – ‘ Constable, Gainsborough and Turner and the Making of Landscape’ at the Royal Academy and ‘Cotman in Normandy’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Neither exhibition is quite as it seems.
For those expecting to see an exhibition solely of Cotman watercolours will be disappointment. The show is in effect about the prints he produced for a two-volume book on the Architecture and Antiquities of Normandy. Similarly the Royal Academy exhibition is about the promotion and popularisation of the art of landscape through the engravings and mezzotints that were published at the time and which brought those artists to the notice of the general public. In both cases, you would not expect that from the advertising posters, which tends to promote the artists names and reputations over the actual content of the shows. But that aside there is much to enjoy.
After Napoleon had been defeated in 1815 there was an opening up of the continent to British travellers and artists keen to exploit its new pictorial possibilities. Cotman’s idea was to produce a book of the ‘Architecture Antiquities of Normandy’ for which he produced drawings and subsequently etchings for the publication in 1820. If this venture were a success, then it would fund his move to London and further his career as an artist.
The main body of work on display are in fact these drawings and prints, mostly produced with the aid of a graphic telescope, a projection device that aided the recording of detail on the gothic buildings he illustrated. The venture however was not a success. The book sold for 12 guineas (the equivalent of £800 in today’s money) and struggled to find buyers. As a result he stayed in his hometown of Norwich forever destined to be considered a provincial artist. This lack of success must have coloured his opinion of France for he wrote, “England is the country for an Englishman, Business may take me (to France) again but never, oh never, shall I be led there by pleasure”
Provincial he may have seemed to some but to others he was a major artist and the visitor to Dulwich is rewarded by a selection of early and late watercolours. His watercolour ‘Brecknock’ (1801) simply takes your breath away. The shock of seeing a great painting that can produce an aesthetic charge both intellectually and emotionally puts Cotman firmly among the greats.
In order to compete with the oil painters of the Royal Academy, watercolourists had to increase the size of their pictures and frame them with obligatory ornate gold frames. Cotman’s large painting of ‘Fountain Abbey’ (1804) with its warm tonality does just that but there is not attention to detail as he increasingly flattens forms and abstracts the information in front of him.
This first room in the exhibition has an instructive display of his work from the early 18th century. It includes the delightful ‘Norwich Market Place’ (1809), ‘ Durham Cathedral’ (1805-6) and the wonderful ‘New Bridge, Durham’ (1806-7) which has a startling combination of abstracted shapes, unexpected shifts in tonality and flattened perspective that announces its modernity in such a way that it would recognised by Cezanne.
The same inventive shifts in scale are there in the pictures that hold the attention better than the more precise linear etchings. The latter is informative, the former inspirational. Two centuries later the power of the best paintings is undiminished, their formal inventions a revelation.
Back at the Royal Academy if you were expecting to see an array of oil paintings by Constable, Turner and Gainsborough, as the poster seems to imply, your would be disappointed. At the heart of this exhibition instead can be found the skilful precision of the professional engravers who reproduced the paintings of Constable and Turner and Gainsborough.
In the days before the invention of photography, Etching and engraving was the only way that an artist could disseminate his work to the general public. It was a technical tour de force to reproduce a famous artist’s painting with a burin on a copper plate on a smaller scale, to be seen in monochrome and done in reverse for the printing process. So skilled were these technicians that their graphic reproductions now have a clarity lost in the darkened original paintings. Many became Associate Royal Academicians but were denied full RA status because they were copyists rather that independent creative artists.
The first great engraver was William Woollet (1735-85) who with the publisher John Boydell (1719-1804) had a commercial success with a painting by Richard Wilson (1713-82), which set the stage for other artists and engravers to follow. Constable’s expressive paintings were best suited for the Mezzotint process and he employed David Lucas (1802-81) to reproduces his work. Gainsborough attempted his own engraving but turned to others for help, while Turner also made some of his own plates but tended to employ a number of different specialists for his print reproductions.
It is all fascinating stuff and of course printmakers would find here much to enjoy. There is a handful of paintings by the featured artists and of course so many prints by different engravers that the curators must have felt that the show was becoming too specialist. Perhaps this is why they included Turner’s fishing rod as an exhibit – and then decided to have a room of contemporary RAs who engage in Landscape to bring the proceeding up to date.
Strangely this is the first room you enter rather than the last and in truth, it is not required and the comparisons are mostly not appropriate. Turner’s influence may be seen in the ‘St Kilda – Stac Lee and Stac an Armin’ an etching and aquatint by Norman Ackroyd, but Richard Long’s text based print which records a 15 day walk in the ‘Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon’ (2001) leaves visual representation and the purpose of this exhibition behind and leads the viewer down a conceptual path.
That aside, it shows how traditional representation still has the power to impress and how landscape can be promoted through various media to be seen in its full glory in these two informative exhibitions.