British watercolours 1750-1900: illlustration into narrative
The popularity and success of the watercolour societies attracted many illustrators, such as Charles Green, into the field of watercolour painting. Green established his reputation with his illustrations to the novels of Charles Dickens, such as 'Little Nell mending the Puppet's Dress', from The Old Curiosity Shop.
But exhibitions offered artists such as Green the opportunity to create and compose their own subjects, such as 'The Rabbit Hutch' , allowing them to develop careers independently of the book publishers. Many notable artists of the late 19th century, such as Myles Birket Foster and Helen Allingham, started their careers as illustrators.
The writer William Makepeace Thackeray captured the appeal of such narrative genre paintings for the Victorian audience when he noted, 'The younger painters are content to exercise their art on subjects far less exalted: a gentle sentiment, an agreeable, quiet incident, a tea-table tragedy, or a bread-and-butter idyll, suffices for the most part their gentle powers'. William Henry Hunt's 'The Doubtful Coin', is a good example of such a 'tea-table tragedy' as a young street seller ruefully examines a coin which may be worthless.
Leading artists such as Sir John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy and founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, were also tempted into painting watercolours of such 'gentle sentiment'. His painting of his daughter Effie overcome with tiredness in church, is charmingly called 'My Second Sermon'. This is less a portrait than a sweet subject picture or narrative genre, typical of the kind of works that enchanted Victorian audiences.
Arthur Hughes had been a fellow student of Millais's at the Royal Academy and was a close associate of the Pre-Raphaelites. He painted a number of well-known contemporary genre scenes in oil such as 'April Love' (Tate Gallery). 'The White Hind' is an example of an invented subject painted in watercolour. Here Hughes transports the viewer to a highly romanticised fairytale world of unicorns, beautiful girls and men on horseback.
Click on the images below for larger versions.