Night scenes from the V&A's watercolour collection
Dreams and nightmares, lovers' trysts and erotic encounters, the supernatural and the magical, the Romantic landscape and the modern cityscape. The night has long been a subject of fascination for artists and writers alike.
The effects of light can be simple to achieve, but darkness tests the artist's skill. The watercolour medium is, however, particularly suited to exploring the shadows and colours associated with the night, from watery blue reflections to the most opaque black. Advances in artificial illumination since the 18th century have changed the ways in which the night can be seen and visualised. The depiction of gas and electric lighting can offer as powerful an image as fire, torchlight and the moon.
Many of the works were inspired by poems and stories, others by historical events such as the Second World War, and others still by the artist's personal and emotional response to the night itself.
Click on the images below for larger versions and more information
Paul Nash, 'The Combat' or 'Angel and Devil'
Paul Nash (1889-1946)
'The Combat' or 'Angel and Devil'
Pencil, ink and wash
Given by the Paul and Margaret Nash Trust, in accordance with the wishes of Margaret Nash
Museum no. P.16-1962
The mysteries associated with the night fascinated Nash. He explored the notion that sometimes only the trees witnessed events that took place after dark. In an accompanying poem Nash described this scene as:
A place of gibbet-shapen trees and black abyss
A dread place seen only in dreams
Edward John Poynter, 'Santa Maria della Salute
Edward John Poynter (1836-1919)
'Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, by Moonlight'
Signed and dated 1863
Museum no. 422-1891
Italy was a source of great inspiration for painters of nocturnal city scenes. Venice in particular, with its many canals, encouraged artists to explore the effects of watery reflections.
Edmund Dulac, 'The Entomologist's Dream'
Edmund Dulac (1882-1953)
'The Entomologist's Dream'
Signed and dated 1909
Museum no. E.655-1922
Given by Mr C.D. Rotch through the National Art Collections Fund
This work is an illustration for Le Papillon Rouge (the red butterfly), a tragic love story published in the French news and art magazine L'Illustration. The tale explores the supernatural potential of dreams and the hallucinatory power of a moonlit night.
Victor Florence Pollet, 'Endymion and Selene'
Victor Florence Pollet (1811-82)
'Endymion and Selene'
Museum no. 748-1902
Given by Mr F.R. Bryan
In Greek myth, Selene was the goddess of the moon who fell in love with the mortal Endymion. According to some versions of the tale, Selene cast a spell over her lover to make him sleep forever. Endymion could thus retain his youth and good looks eternally.
Charles Altamont Doyle, 'Meditation
Charles Altamont Doyle (1832-93)
'Meditation, Self Portrait'
Museum no. P.12-1981
This watercolour comes from one of the sketchbooks used by the artist during his stay in the Royal Montrose Lunatic Asylum in Scotland. His son, the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, organised an exhibition of the artist's work in London in 1924.
John Everett Millais, 'Love'
John Everett Millais (1829-96)
Pen and ink and blue watercolour wash, probably touched with watercolour
Museum no. 178-1894
Millais made this image for an illustrated edition of 'Poets of the Nineteenth Century', published by the Dalziel brothers in 1857. It illustrates the poem of the same name by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, written in 1798-9, which describes a lovers' midnight meeting.
Robert Blemmell Schnebbelie, 'Exterior of Drury Lane Theatre'
Robert Blemmell Schnebbelie (died 1847)
'Exterior of Drury Lane Theatre'
Signed and dated 1821
Museum no. 638-1877
Developments in lighting throughout the 19th century transformed the way in which artists saw the night. Here, the Drury Lane theatre is shown illuminated by gas light on the occasion of a ball on 18 June 1821 in commemoration of the battle of Waterloo and the coronation of George IV.
C.R.W. Nevinson, 'Boesinghe Farm'
C.R.W. Nevinson (1889-1946)
Museum no. Circ.528-1962
Nevinson was an official war artist during the First World War. One of his interests was to explore the inner structure of houses torn apart by conflict. Here he depicts the town of Boesinghe in Belgium, using pastel to emphasise the deep shadows created by ruined buildings.