“Watercolour” at the Tate Britain

Watercolour at the Tate Britain: JMW Turner, Rachael Pedder-Smith, Paul Sandby, JMW Turner, William Blake, Thomas Girtin
Watercolor, or watercolour, with an added “u” if you learned your English in England (grin), has a long history, perhaps going back to cave paintings that predate most of recorded history.

Watercolor involves the creation of paint by suspending pigment in a water soluble binder, for a long time animal hide glues or plant sugars, but as of the 19th Century, gum arabic, made from the sap of acacia trees.

Though watercolor has been around for all of that time, its use by artists was predominantly relegated to studies, location sketches and personal notation. It wasn’t until the 18th Century that artists, most notably in England, brought watercolor to the fore as an artistic medium for finished works.

A new exhibition at the Tate Britain seeks to celebrate and expand on that heritage. Simply called “Watercolour“, the exhibit traces the history of watercolor back over 800 years, features a wide variety of artists, styles, periods and subject matter, and of course brings forward the greats of the “English School” of watercolorists, including William Blake and JMW Turner along with the Pre-Raphaelites and a number of contemporary painters.

It seeks to broaden the perception of watercolor as a medium, beyond the bounds of the common association of watercolor with landscape, amateur painters and sketches.

Unfortunately the Tate hasn’t put much of the exhibition online, but there are a few images and some videos on the site (one of which shows you Turner’s portable watercolor palette), as well as other images on the Tate Blog.

The best selection of images from the exhibition is probably in the Guardian article, Watercolor at Tate Britain – in pictures, and accompanying the text articles Tate Britain makes a splash with watercolours and Tate Britain’s Watercolour: Awash with inspiration (they’re so witty, those British), and Watercolour at Tate Britain – review.

There is a book accompanying the exhibition, also simply titled Watercolour (also here), authored by its curator, Alison Smith.

Watercolor at Tate Britain runs until 21 August 2011.

(Images above: JMW Turner, Rachael Pedder-Smith, Paul Sandby, JMW Turner, William Blake, Thomas Girtin)


8 Replies to ““Watercolour” at the Tate Britain”

  1. Watercolor always struck me as the most benign medium. Once it evolved past that “animal hide glue” phase you mention, it was totally portable, non-toxic, easy to clean up, no electricity required, spontaneous, responsive, able to accompany us on the full range of human moods, from gentle and contemplative to vigorous and splashy. It seems to me more intimate, personal and user friendly than any other art form (with the exception perhaps of charcoal, which has a more limited range).

    Good for the Tate for recognizing that it is worth revisiting what Holland Carter calls “the latest news from the distant past.”

  2. …not to mention the fact that we English invented the language so technically you Americans removed the ‘u’ as opposed to us adding it in :)

    That aside, great blog!

  3. Good watercolor/colour is just magical. Thank you for highlighting this. What a wonderful show this looks to be. Would so love to get there, but at least I have this post bookmarked to look at from time to time & follow the links!

  4. Apparently many of the spelling differences in US/English are because the English aristocracy decided to be more like the French (ie Theatre instead of Theater) – the current US spelling is actually how the English spelled it when they travelled to the US and before France became fashionable.

    I have always been a user of inks (due to their fluidity and flexibility) but have recently realised that watercolour may actually do more of what I am trying to do with ink.

    Always discovering great art and inspiration on this site – Thanks

  5. This looks like a wonderful show– just from the selected samples shown here, which exhibit the range and variation possible this medium. It’s curious that it didn’t come into its own until so recently, considering it’s widely regarded as the most difficult paint medium to master. But then, painting has always been ruled by convention as much as any other art form.

  6. I’ve got the catalogue (bought before it opened). The exhibition appears to be very much stronger on classical watercolourists although for some reason doesn’t have as many good quality Turner sketches as it should have.

    Quite what Tracy Emin is doing in the exhibition is anybody’s guess!

    I’m hoping to get to see it this week.

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