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Thomas Girtin, Bridgenorth, Shropshire, 1802, British Museum

I saw a tall adolescent making watercolour studies after Flemish landscapes. Already in this genre, which was an English novelty at the time, he had an astonishing ability.      -
Eugene Delacroix on Richard Parkes Bonington

LANDSCAPE PAINTING didn't originate in England. Its emergence there in the late 18th century came as a modest but momentous revival initiated by the Welsh painter Richard Wilson (1713-1782), who converted from portraiture to painting landscapes in the "classical" manner of Claude Lorrain following a sojourn in Rome in the 1750s. Wilson's example was reinforced by a burgeoning English interest in the sublime and the picturesque, which attracted both philosophers and poets. Related to this was an English appetite for "rural pleasures" exemplified in revolutionary landscape design: Shenstone, "Capability" Brown, and their like pointed their prospects, diversified their surfaces (using naturalistic bodies of water to reflect trees and sky), and entangled their walks in the great country properties of the realm.

In spite of these interests, in mid-18th century England portrait painting remained supreme. Landscape was scarcely mentioned in Horace Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting (1762) or Joshua Reynolds Discourses (1769-90), yet by the turn of the 19th century landscape had all but displaced the portrait. This quiet revolution was effected through the efforts of topographical artists like Paul Sandby (1731-1809) and especially by Alexander Cozens (1717- 86) and his son John Robert (1752-97), both of whom painted Alpine and Italian subjects in watercolours for British patrons on the "Grand Tour". In their hands watercolour became an ideal medium for painting en plein air. It was light and portable; it wasn't messy; above all it added colour to drawing.

WATERCOLOUR is more than just a different kind of paint -- it's a unique water-borne paint used in combination with a specific support, nearly always an appropriate, prepared paper. The paint itself is inherently transparent, consisting of finely-ground pigment, and because of this its whites and highlights tend to be "reserved" after the practise of wash drawing, presented by the paper itself rather than by additions of opaque white paint. In the mid-18th century, watercolours were essentially tinted drawings -- in many cases barely tinted, because a wide range of finely-ground pigments weren't manufactured commercially until the introduction of cake watercolours by William Reeves in the late 1880s. However, by the early years of the 19th century, in the hands of masters like Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), and Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) watercolour had become a medium of power and flexibility.

Drawing, usually in pencil or some similar graphic medium, has been traditionally the foundation of watercolour: lightness is all, for drawing leaves traces, sometimes subtle, which can be seen through the transparent washes. The great watercolour painters all mastered drawing in one way or another. Once can scarcely tell where Girtin's pencil ends and his brush begins; Cotman's subtle shadows and divisions seem to detach from their subjects; Turner's drawing often floats above his washes.

Watercolour subjects ranged across the picturesque and the sublime in concert with contemporary poetry. In the late 18th century, abbeys and gothic ruins abound, as did "shooting torrents" and "black drizzling crags," but these were tempered by more homely subjects, as in Cowper's:

"Here Ouse, slow winding through a level plain
Of spacious meads with cattle sprinkled o'er,
Conducts the eye along its sinuous course

DURING THE GOLDEN AGE of British landscape painting, her artists were shut off from Europe by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars (Turner made a famous trip the French Alps during a brief peace in 1802). As a result, the British landscape school -- and watercolour in particular -- developed along independent lines, which explains Delacroix's enthusiasm for this "English novelty" which struck him so forcefully when he encountered Bonington in the 1820s.

Despite Delacroix and even Cézanne, watercolour never took hold on the continent. The great British influence on French art came, instead, from Constable's oils, which inspired the Barbizons and through them the Impressionists. Ironically, England was slow to accept Constable during his lifetime, and acceptance was impeded even after his death by Ruskin's disdain.

Painting in watercolour continued to develop in England throughout the 19th Century, but too often painters sought to demonstrate that watercolour was as "worthy" a medium as oil, finding proof in emulation. Their efforts were exemplified by large "exhibition watercolours" painted meticulously in the studio, often imitating the effects of oil paint. Impressive though they were, these productions were a symptom of decline. After about 1830 the great age of watercolour had passed. Girtin had died in 1802, Bonington in 1828; Samuel Palmer's vision had subsided; Turner had succumbed to the vapours; and, overwhelmed by Turner's fame, Cotman had taken to imitating the effects of oils. The next great revival of landscape painting belonged to France.

To be sure, the British watercolour tradition didn't die out altogether. It was carried on by artists as substantial as Peter deWint and David Cox. Like a hidden stream it nourished artists throughout the English-speaking world well into the 20th century. It was brought to English Canada in the 19th century by successive waves of British immigrants, and in the 20th to the Canadian West by numerous artists, among them Inglis Sheldon-Williams, A. C. Leighton and Walter J. Phillips.