Turner stands apart, an unrelated master, a supreme individualist. He was not essentially a water-colourist, and his influence on the art, if it ever existed, is impossible to measure. His knowledge of visible nature, however, was amazing, and his energy and industry exemplary. He bequeathed nineteen thousand sketches in water-colour to the nation, and in these, it is said, he never repeated himself. There is an element in his work, the index of genius, that defies analysis.
Turner's early water-colours were topographic,
tight and circumstantial. He studies with Girtin and Dr. Munro's
house, copying Cozens and Gainsborough. Of one picture by Cozens
Turner said that it had taught him all he knew. This, however,
was more likely an expression of enthusiasm than a statement of
fact, for Turner is also credited with the statement that Van
de Velde made him a painter.
Turner was never a slave to technique. He used any method at all that would serve his immediate purpose. Constable said that he seemed to paint in tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy', which is probably as much as anyone knew of his methods, for he was reticent and secret regarding them. He is said to have used both tobacco juice and beer as liquid pigments - hardly a mere academic proceeding than using steam. Probably he made a larger use of wet paper painting than any of his contemporaries.
Sometimes he tinted white paper gray before commencing his painting, lifting the tint for lighter passages, modelling with a sponge, or scraping out the highlights. Many of his water-colours were carried nearly to completion on wet paper, the colours melting one into the other, manipulated in a manner possible only on paper in that condition.
Turner frequently had three or four water-colours in hand at once, when working form sketches in his studio. He outlined the main features of the composition, immersed the paper in water (contained in a bucket handily placed near his chair) and immediately carried the colour as far as he could. When the first began to dry he started the second, and so with the third, resoaking, painting, and drying them in order.
He filled many sketch books, often with pencil drawings only, adding colour afterwards, summarily, or with a degree of finish. But he frequently set up his easel and completed a sketch on the spot.
Crossing the Brook' is an interesting example of the influence of the school of classical landscape, which for many years had a strangle-hold on English art. It is only necessary to mention that Samuel Palmer, who was a devoted slave to its traditions, died only in 1881. The early water-colourists were victims of the prevailing taste, with the possible exception of Paul Sandby (1725 - 1799), who is sometimes called the father of English water-colour painting. ;He evaded the restrictions imposed by the classical tradition and went straight to nature. But the greatest by far were John Cozens and Thomas Girtin, men by common consent possessing genius of the very highest order, who did a great deal towards broadening the appeal of landscape. Constable completed its emancipation, while Cotman, his contemporary, whose importance only now is being recognised, added the blandishment of patern.
Girtin made the first big step in water-colour, abandoning line for tone but Cotman, who was only seven years his junior, leapt so far forward that he was completely out of sight of his contemporaries, and only within the last ten or twenty years has his work been estimated at its true worth. As A water-colourist Cotman has no peer. Turner's reputation was well established by Ruskin, and has not increased, but Cotman's fame is still expanding. He was overlooked by Ruskin, which is only another proof of the latter's fallibility. Cotm,an is the supreme master. It is unfortunate that creative artists seem to need encouragement and approbation. Cotman felt the lack of it, and it is said that he died broken-hearted on that account. He was a painter's painter. Turner admired his work if Ruskin did not, but his friends other than artists, simply did not understand. As a matter of fact it was only in the seventies that the public became aware of the beauties of pattern, and Cotman was essentially a patternist. At that time the Japanese print was becoming popular, and Whistler was disturbing the critics with fragile and delicate arrangements and symphonies revealing no hint of the heave basic balance demanded by British tradition.
Cotman probably never saw an oriental print. His own sense of fitness and beauty involved a due regard for pattern - his earliest efforts show it and this, combined with the fgact that he was a landscape painter, and that he lived when he did, was his misfortune. Gainsborough's reputation owed nothing to his landscapes; Crome was known only in Norwich; Girtin and Turner worked for engravers as topographers, and were so regarded; Constable and his first successes in France. Practically all the water-colourists were obliged to teach, and the large majority of their pupils naturally were those in need of occupation or a hobby, mostly women. Landscape in art was not yet popular. Burne Jones expressed the prevailing feeling, at an even later date, when he said that he liked landscape well enough over a man's shoulder, or under a man's arm. Such were the conditions. The Public showed no interest in Cotman's paintings. He tried to please, painting potboilers, portraits and historical works. He tried to curb his idealism, and strove for the obvious. Devoid of sentiment, nature to him was a store-house of ideas for design, a source of inspiration. He did inot impress pattern upon nature by the falsification of form, or by an illogical use of chiaroscuro - he found it there, and applied it to the space he had to fill. Proper placement is exemplified in everything he die.
Cotman's handling was as distinguished as his composition. He is the student's authority for sponging, scraping, and paste-painting. Scraping with a sharp knife, or a razor, is not necessarily restricted to the removal of dry pigment for the achievement of highlights. Some of Cotman's drawings sparkle with widely distributed scrapes - a whole sky in some cases, and sometimes more. The knife is a legitimate, almost an indispensable part of our equipment. Nothing else will lend vitality to a dull or woolly drawing so readily, or suggest to sheen of sun on water, or an effulgence of light anywhere. The admixture of paste with water-colour retards the drying of the pigment, and consequently makes its manipulation a little easier, and it also lends the appearance of solidity, associated only with the oil medium, without the sacrifice of transparency. It is astonishing that the paste medium has not been adopted more generally.
No contemporary art shows Cotman's influence,
but to-day it is he who inspires emulation among the more thoughtful
painters. His best work, unequalled in the history of water-colour,
embodies the British tradition.
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