Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Watercolour at Tate Britain: Highlights

I wasn't sure what to expect from Tate Britain's current exhibition, 'Watercolour'. Reviews were mixed, as was the feedback garnered by the museum from visitors. But though the show has some flaws, it also has quite dazzling highlights.

John Dunstall: 'A Pollard Oak near West Hampnett Place, Chichester', c 1660
In the first room visitors are treated to John Dunstall's tiny but intensely animated drawing of a pollard oak, which is balanced by a giant parish map on which can be seen sometimes unfinished sketches of people and creatures. Critics have complained that the maps and the equally gorgeous illuminated books do not really count as watercolours, but I'm not sure it matters.

The curators of the show have evidently decided to broaden its scope and appeal as far as possible. Yes, you can argue that this policy results in a lack of focus - a lack of art historical narrative - but most visitors to art galleries are not art historians. What we ordinary punters want is something wonderful, or moving, or even disturbing, to remove us for a while from the humdrum of everyday life.

Mark Catesby: 'A blue grosbeak 
(Passerina caerulea) and sweet bay 
(Magnolia virginiana)', c.1728-9
The botanical and natural history paintings in the next room fascinated me. As a terrible draughtsman who can barely write a legible shopping list I was struck by the precision of drawings that were designed to act as scientific record rather than work of art. I was particularly interested to discover a drawing by Mark Catesby, one of whose ancestors had been involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Catesby was raised in Castle Hedingham, Essex, almost 300 years before Eric Ravilious moved there, and it rather appealed to me that their work should appear almost side by side in this extraordinary retrospective of British art.

In fact you'll find the sole Rav on offer - 'The Vale of the White Horse' (1939) in the next room, surrounded by other landscapes including Edward Burra's lovely 'Valley and River, Northumberland' (1972). If I'm tempted to carp about missed opportunities it's perhaps here, because the curators ought to have given us rather more to enjoy. The Ravilious is excellent, but why not include another piece by way of a contrast - the vibrant 'Lifeboat' of 1938, perhaps?

 The Vale of the White Horse (1939), conjured entirely out of cross-hatchings, strokes, dabs and striations of faint colour, frail contour against pale line, with the white page breathing airily in between, is almost nothing, a see-through dream. But it is uniquely strange, starting in reality and ending in its own radiant elsewhere. Laura Cumming, The Observer

Eric Ravilious: 'The Vale of the White Horse' (1939)  
Ravilious would no doubt have been pleased to see his painting in the same room as Francis Towne's 'The Source of the Aveiron' (1781), a watercolour that inspired him, but again we have to wonder why such an influential painter was given so little space. Ditto John Sell Cotman and... well, everyone will have their own list.

Still, if you're going to have one painting by an artist at least make it a good one, and while Cotman's painting of Norwich market isn't quite up there with the work he did in Yorkshire it is a wonderful, strangely modern piece. The same applies to Turner, whose painting 'The Blue Rigi' (1841-2) has to represent him pretty much solo. Perhaps the curators felt we'd all seen quite enough Turners...

Francis Towne: The Source of the Aveiron (1828)
I did enjoy seeing all the watercolour sets and so forth, particularly Paul Nash's sombre kit - fitting for a man who painted in the trenches of Flanders and a good introduction to the room devoted to war art. This mini-exhibition had some peculiar gaps (Ardizzone for one) but - and I think this is more important - did provide some thought-provoking images. The juxtaposition of Paul Nash's darkly exuberant 'Wire' (1918-19) and the frank, intimate watercolours of wounded men was particularly effective.

Samuel Palmer: 'A Hilly Scene', c1828
The remaining sections of the exhibition were marred slightly by the scale of the room, which is much larger than the previous ones. It was hard to focus on a small painting like 'A Hilly Scene' (1828), Samuel Palmer's pastoral treat, and all but impossible to concentrate on the modern work, which seemed (in memory) to involve large expanses of white paper with not much on it.

Again, I don't blame the curators for trying. These days museums and galleries have to get as many people as possible through the turnstiles, and if that means including some famous names then so be it (although you'd think that David Hockney would have lured in a few punters, especially since he curated an exhibition of Turner watercolours at the same museum in 2007...). Better a couple of dubious choices than no show at all.

Patrick Heron: 'January 9:1983:II'
And besides, if you look at what's there, rather than what isn't, you'll be in for a treat. Incidentally, if you're visiting the shop at the entrance to the exhibition, do look out for 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', and 'The War Paintings'...

Coming soon: NOT the Tate Britain Watercolour Show...

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