British Watercolours 1750-1900: Depicting the Elements
Rain & grey
According to the drawing master, Alexander Cozens, landscape could be codified into three categories: 'Composition', 'Objects' and 'Circumstance'. The last included the seasons, times of day, such as the setting sun, and accidents such as fog, rain or 'the intermixture of the sky, or clouds with the landscape'. Cozens also suggested what emotions each category would evoke in the spectator. The work of his son J.R. Cozens' for his patron William Beckford reflects this belief that landscape can be evocative of particular emotions.
When Beckford returned to England disillusioned with Italy, he left Cozens to record specific sites. But Cozens' watercolours are more than records of sites of interest. 'Shepherd's Hut between Naples and Portici' for example captured specific weather effects such as a storm off the sea, which were intended also to echo Beckford's emotional experience of Italy.
This emotional approach contrasts with the more objective study of weather by nineteenth-century artists such as John Constable. The artist Henry Fuseli's joke that he needed his umbrella and greatcoat to visit his friend Constable shows the early association between Constable and the unpredictability of British weather.
Early topographical artists had drawn skies much as they did architecture - simple forms outlined and tinted. As can be seen in Constable's 'Salisbury Cathedral', Constable could envelop something as solid as a church spire in atmosphere.
It was said of the watercolourist David Cox, 'his skies seem to be composed of the same material as the landscape, and assimilate so exactly with the ground that it is hard to tell where one leaves off and other begins'. Thomas Collier's 'Heath Scene' shows how artists working after Cox found their 'subject' in atmosphere and light. Collier's fellow watercolourist, James Orrock, called him 'the finest of sky painters, especially of rain and cumulus clouds'. This does not mean that these later landscape paintings are without human sentiment; John Linnell's shepherd in 'Collecting the Flock' is as dejected as that by Cozens. But as Constable said, 'The sky is the keynote...the chief organ of sentiment ...the sky is the source of light in nature, and governs everything'.
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Salisbury Cathedral Seen from the North-West, with Cottages
Pen and bistre ink and water-colour on paper
Museum no. 227-1888
Sun and moon
It was said that J.M.W. Turner 'had seen the sun rise oftener than all the rest of the Academy'. But like many artists of his generation Turner was also influenced by the 17th century painter Claude Lorraine. The landscape theorist Uvedale Price, noted that 'every person of observation must have remarked how broad the lights and shades are in a fine evening in nature, or (what is about the same thing) in a picture by Claude'.
Claude bathed these moments in poetry and magic; as the painter Joshua Reynolds wrote, 'he conducts us to the tranquillity of Arcadian scenes and fairy-land'. Claude's Arcadian ambience is echoed in Francis Oliver Finch's 'Twilight Walk', while Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding's golden vision of 'The Sands at Ryde: Sunset' echoes Turner's response to Claude.
Samuel Palmer also admired Claude because he 'addressed not the perception chiefly, but the Imagination'. Palmer claimed that his own enchantment with light and shadow began as a child when he watched the moon rising behind the branches of a great elm while his nurse quoted, 'fond man! the vision of a moment made. Dream of dream, and shadow of shade.' This enchanted quality can be seen in Palmer's 'Going Home at Curfew Time'.
Albert Goodwin's vision was equally individual. His view of 'Winchester College' is suffused with a shimmering other-worldly light. The Spectator of 1884 wrote of Goodwin, 'His work is...crammed with meaning and hints of thought; he is for ever feeling something, or wanting us to feel something'.
Not all artists were seduced by such feelings of romance and poetry. 'Broad Street, Oxford, by Moonlight' by the drawing master J B Malchair, and 'View from Morpeth Terrace' by the amateur artist Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, are separated by a hundred years. Both artists however seem primarily interested in exploring the possibilities of the watercolour medium. This is true also of Sir Edward Poynter in his view of 'Sta Maria della Salute in Venice'. This all-round professional artist and President of the Royal Academy was an accomplished watercolourist, as shown in his cool appraising view of this most romantic of cities by moonlight.
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Broad Street, Oxford, by Moonlight
John Baptist Malchair
Late 18th century
Watercolour over pencil on paper
Museum no. P.14-1960