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English Watercolor Painting Throughout History

Updated on May 1, 2013
Paul Sandby's View in Luton Park
Paul Sandby's View in Luton Park | Source

It may be said that Albrecht Dürer was the father of Western watercolor, but more than 200 years elapsed before the English watercolorists raised it to an art in its own right. The flowering of watercolor began in England during the early part of the 18th century. Until then it had been used only to tint pen-and-pencil drawings with washes of blue and sepia. Yet the monochrome sketches of Claude Lorrain and Rembrandt van Rijn not only suggest a sense of immense space but, in a miraculous way, a feeling of color.

Influenced on the one hand by Italian classicism and on the other by Dutch realism, the early watercolor artists turned to landscape for inspiration, a theme that was to reach unparalleled heights during the early part of the 19th century. As they began to use color, three distinct styles emerged: 1) Washes of transparent color were added to enrich pen drawings made in sepia or black on white paper; 2) Gouache, or opaque body color, was used alone, usually on tinted paper; 3) Transparent washes were strengthened by the judicious use of gouache in the light passages.; and

Paul Sandby was by far the most significant figure in the first period of the English watercolor movement (roughly 1720–1780), doing more than anyone to raise its status. Timidly at first, he gradually began to add stronger color to monochromatic washes flooded over a fine "etcher's" pen outline, achieving the chiaroscuro (interplay of light and shade) so much admired by his contemporaries.

John Robert Cozens' painting
John Robert Cozens' painting | Source

It was during the second phase of the movement (1780–1850) that watercolors of great power and unsurpassed beauty were produced. Building on the foundation laid by earlier artists, the painters of the heyday of English watercolor tended to divide into three schools: topographical, romantic, and mystical. On occasion the work of an individual painter overlapped all three areas.

In three words, the poet Thomas Gray captured the essence of the topographical school: "Scenes, situations, antiquities." An increasing number of art patrons were traveling abroad, and they called for paintings of the buildings and places seen on their travels. In addition, demand was growing for scenes of the British countryside, while the advent of sea bathing and the seaside resort began to popularize the seascape.

Artists such as John Robert Cozens, while satisfying these popular demands, also took the development of watercolor a stage further. Abandoning restrictive pen line and monochromatic underpainting, Cozens built up his sensitive pictures in a series of delicate low-toned washes, putting dark color over light. This approach had a marked influence on the great romantics, Thomas Girtin and J. M. W. Turner, who as young men copied Cozens's work by candlelight. Other topographical watercolorists of the time were John "Warwick" Smith, Edward Dayes, Michael Angelo Rooker, and Francis Towne.

Thomas Girtin, although he died tragically young, led the way to a highly romantic, imaginative approach to watercolor, forging a tradition that was perpetuated by Turner, John Constable, and others. As one critic wrote of him, "No one characteristic watercolor of the early 19th century could be imagined without presupposing Girtin." Whereas Girtin was content to create beauty from observable reality, Joseph Mallord William Turner invented, imposing his own ideas on the subjects he painted. Obsessed by color and "flittering light," he created watercolors that sparkle and scintillate in a manner that no one since has achieved. The vortexing waves and feel for water in his seascapes belie the English critic John Ruskin's words, "The sea has never been, and I fancy, will never be or can be painted."

Peter de Wint's painting.
Peter de Wint's painting. | Source

John Constable, whose watercolors went unappreciated until 50 years after his death, and who came as close as anyone to matching Turner's sense of space, was a master of skies. Unlike Turner, who allowed his romantic vision to dictate the view before him, Constable was the first to prove that a landscape could be a great work of art and yet remain a faithful likeness of nature.

John Sell Cotman, David Cox, and Peter de Wint, though contemporaries, developed completely different styles. Cotman, who with John Crome was a leader of the Norwich school of painting, ordered the elements of nature within his watercolors into a preconceived pattern, laying one limpid, carefully conceived wash upon another. Cox threw himself vigorously into his work, especially in later life when freed from financial constraints, and excelled at capturing a fleeting windswept moment in time. ("How fond you are of painting wind, Mr. Cox," an admirer once exclaimed.) De Wint's painting, in contrast, has a calm serenity. He used rich, balanced color derived from a limited palette to depict calm reflections on water and the mellow stone of old buildings. Among other leading watercolorists of this period were John Varley, Cornelius Varley, A. V. Copley Fielding, and John White Abbott.

William Blake was supreme among the visionaries, mystical painters who saw and painted with the inner eye. One of the most imaginative artists of all time, Blake once said of himself, "Men think they can copy nature as correctly as I copy imagination." The other English great visionary was Samuel Palmer, who brought to watercolor an unbelievable richness of color. Artists influenced by Blake and Palmer were Edward Calvert, John Linnell, and Henry Fuseli.

From 1850 onward, as the number of exhibitions and watercolor societies increased, more and more artists took to the medium of watercolor, which was by now accepted as an independent art form. However, the work itself degenerated into a vehicle for technical virtuosity and cloying prettiness, in which overbright color was used to ape oil painting. In an attempt to revitalize British painting, a group of young artists formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, taking for their theme "truth to nature." Among the more famous of these who worked in watercolor were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

The beginning of the 20th century saw British watercolor take on a fresh impetus, as the influence of the postimpressionists, fauves, expressionists, cubists, and futurists began to be felt. The New English Art Club, founded to shake the Royal Academy out of its lethargy, encouraged painters such as Philip Wilson Steer, Walter Richard Sickert, Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash, David Jones, Graham Sutherland, and John Piper.


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