Romanticism and Representation: Watercolour Painting in the Nineteenth Century

Exhibition Article - Works on Paper

Watercolours consistently feature within our areas of specialism at Rountree Tryon Galleries. The genres of wildlife, maritime, and topographical painting all owe a great deal to the versatility of watercolour – from wildlife illustrations to polar scenes painted aboard vessels. This article explores the views of watercolour painting in arguably its finest period, the nineteenth century, and the ways in which this background can inform our understanding and appreciation of the watercolours currently available in our Works on Paper show, running from 13-25 March.

In 2011, Tate Britain held an ambitious exhibition, titled Watercolour, which strove to raise the status of the medium. Often viewed as a means to an end, such as a run of engravings or a great masterpiece in oil, it wasn’t until the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that watercolour paintings were properly valued as fine artworks in their own right. Central to this shift was the improvement of heavy paper and the commercial accessibility of watercolour paints, both of which enabled an increase in amateur painters, and the example set by masters such as J.M.W. Turner. John Ruskin said of Turner:

‘the truly noble works are those in which, without effort, he has expressed his thoughts as they came, and forgotten himself; and in these the outpouring of invention is not less miraculous than the swiftness and obedience of the mighty hand that expresses it’. (p.385)

This description captures the Romantic view of watercolour painting, admiring the instinctive interaction between nature and the mind of the artist, a coming together of two sublime entities which finds physical embodiment in the artwork. This parallels the ideals of great Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, whose first version of his great exploration of the poetic mind, The Prelude, was completed in 1799, the same year that Turner painted his iconic self-portrait (Tate, no. N00458). In the exhibition catalogue for the show at Tate Britain, Alison Smith notes that the conventional view of watercolour in Britain is through this lens of Romantic naturalism, a sense that ‘watercolour is best suited to representing ephemeral and contingent aspects of the visible world’ (p.9). She argues that this idea is inherently Modernist due to its privileging of the qualities of the medium itself, but that the history of watercolour is also grander and more wide-ranging than this – incorporating finely detailed work which was inspired by medieval illuminations or which utilised miniaturist techniques.

Paintings such as Alfred Herbert’s Saint-Malo from the Harbour, currently on display in our Works on Paper show, captures Ruskin’s evocation of speed and freedom in the painting of watercolours en plein air. Herbert has layered washes of paint to create the clouds, warm sky, and reflections in the low water. The town is almost silhouetted against the sky, maintaining a hazy quality against which the beached tall ship and colourful figures, painted in gouache, are thrown into relief. The use of sgraffito, a scratching out of the paint, in the lower portion of the work not only adds highlights to the scene but also reminds us of the materiality of the picture. The paper shines through, asserting the hand of the artist and the process its creation. The painting is an impression of a moment in time, with a clear sense of the interaction between the artist’s experience of the environment and his immediate response on paper.

Archibald Thorburn’s studies offer an alternative perspective on the use of watercolour and gouache. Rather than an impression of a scene, the studies instead reflect the mind of an artist working through anatomical detail and the ways in which he can bend the medium to the purpose of representation. Thorburn established his reputation as a foremost wildlife artist when he was commissioned to illustrate Lord Lilford’s Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands (1885-1897). In his Tree sparrow studies, also currently on display in the gallery, the artist’s process is directly shown in his accompanying notes on colour and dimension. In the lower-left corner, he has drawn lines which are then labelled ‘bill to centre of eye’, ‘End of bill to back of head – where chocolate features end’, and ‘length of wing’. The study of the sparrow’s head at the top of the paper shows these observations in practice, as Thorburn navigates colour, scale, and proportion to compose a highly accurate image of the bird. Unlike the freedom, effortlessness, and selflessness that Ruskin admired in Turner, this process is highly considered and scientific. Nonetheless, it stands as a fascinatingly personal artwork which demonstrates the versatility of the medium.

Edward Augustus Inglefield’s HMS Breadalbane and HMS Phoenix caught in the ice off Beechey Island, 1853 can be seen as combining watercolour’s capacity for both Romantic naturalism and representational record. Inglefield was a naval officer, explorer, and artist who was involved in the search for Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage. Breadalbane became trapped in the ice and was ultimately crushed, her crew rescued by the companion ship Phoenix. The use of watercolour is fast and expressive, with washes capturing the cloudy sky and angular shapes representing the jagged ice. Many polar explorers were also artists, such as Edward Adams (1824-1856) and Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1886-1959) and their work, as well as Inglefield’s, can be seen in the Polar Art Collection at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge. Inglefield’s painting, possibly painted from life or from sketches taken at the scene, evokes the drama and hostility of the landscape while also capturing the details of a moment in history.

Nineteenth century watercolours, from studies to finished works and from maritime scenes to wildlife paintings, have enduring appeal. Watercolour can capture unique qualities of both environment and artist, often evoking a sense of speed and effortless, as well as serving as a medium of representational truth - particularly with the addition of details in gouache. The works discussed are on display in our Works on Paper show in our Petworth gallery until 25 March. Instillation views, a list of works, and a digital catalogue can all be found under the exhibitions tab on our website.

by Lydia Gascoigne, Gallery Specialist


John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing (London: Routledge, 1857)
Ed. by E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin (London: George Allen, 1903)
Ed. by Alison Smith, Watercolour, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Publishing, 2011)

March 16, 2023
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