British Watercolours 1750-1900: Depicting the Coast
Early British traditions of paintings of the sea were primarily connected with the Navy, and the main focus was notable ships and battle scenes. At the end of the 18th century the sea itself became the subject of painting, as a force of sublime power and drama. Interestingly, at the same time, the coast, a much more mundane aspect of man's relationship with the sea, also became increasing interesting to artists and patrons.
In the late 18th century, coastal towns such as Brighton became popular as health resorts, when the benefit of sea-bathing became accepted. A number of artists discovered coastal areas as a subject only when forced there for health reasons.
John Constable first went to Brighton in 1824 for his wife's health, but hated it, calling it 'Piccadilly ... by the seaside'. He found solace in sketching the everyday life on the beach, as seen in his 'Coast Scene, Brighton', much as he had sketched the countryside around his home in Suffolk.
For other artists the coast was their home scene, such as James Stark, one of the so-called 'Norwich School'. This was a loose group of artists who, instead of travelling far and wide to paint variations on the standard 'picturesque' themes, found subjects in their own native landscape. Stark's lumpen sand dunes in his view of 'Winterton, Norfolk' are comparable to the homely and ordinary subjects of much of Constable's work in Suffolk.
These artists found subjects in the simple rather than in the dramatic. In John Sell Cotman's watercolour of a 'Boat on the Beach' his block-like technique creates an image of monumental stillness rather than finicky quaintness. David Cox's technique also suited the real subject of his view of 'Rhyl Sands', the wind which whips at the dresses of holiday makers. The critic John Ruskin was critical of Cox's technique, his 'dash', but understood that 'what there is of the accidental in his mode of [painting] answers gracefully to the accidental part of nature herself'.
Click on the images below for larger versions.