Britain and the watercolour enjoy a special relationship. That is the premise driving Tate Britain’s initially impressive but eventually annoying examination of the notoriously reticent medium. British artists are particularly fond of watercolour. They are particularly good at using it. Why, therefore, has nobody previously thought to put the entire slide box of British watercolour under the microscope and examine its contents as far back as the Middle Ages? I reckon it was principally because watercolour is, these days, viewed as an unsexy medium. Fine for Prince Charles, Sunday amateurs and watercolour societies, but not for the front line of contemporary aesthetics.
A second drawback is that it’s so difficult to display. Not only does exposure to sunlight begin to dim watercolours the moment they are out of the box, if you hang a row of them on a wall, they will usually fail to impose themselves on your imagination in a visceral way. There is something timid about the medium. Something sensitive. Something inherently unsuited to the bunga-bunga world in which we find ourselves.
Tate Britain’s examination does, nevertheless, begin excitingly. A set of delightfully imprecise early topographical maps show wobbly 16th-century watercolour skills being used to colour in a wobbly 16th-century knowledge of geography. A glass casket in the centre of the room houses an exquisite congregation of medieval prayer books, in which anonymous watercolour perfectionists picture religious impossibilities so precisely, glowingly and trustingly. A second casket is filled with tiny Elizabethan portraits by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. There’s Elizabeth I. And the dashing Charles Blount, 1st Earl of Devonshire, who is, I think you will find, a distant ancestor of our own James Blunt. If you listen carefully to the rustles and whispers that seem to emanate from an Elizabethan miniature, you will almost certainly hear Hilliard’s Charles whisper to his Elizabeth: you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful to me.
This aspect of watercolour, its facility for miniaturisation, is a feature, too, of the first recordings of the wonders of nature that begin to appear now, in the show’s most exquisite stretch. Alexander Marshal paints some resplendent tulips in 1682. Mark Catesby observes a Blue Grosbeak in Virginia in 1728. A Whiptail Wallaby is spotted in New Zealand by Edward Lear in 1834.
Technically, these are scientific illustrations, created with a scientific purpose in mind. What is being celebrated here is watercolour’s excellent portability and descriptive usefulness. Untechnically, some instinctive association between watercolour and the yearning for paradise is also being sensed here. Innocence seems to be a watercolour quality, too.
The start of the show makes clear that this is a flexible and surprising medium. Anyone who arrives expecting to encounter landscapes by Girtin, Cozens, Turner and the giants of the so-called golden age of English watercolour is immediately corrected. The first appearance here of the instantly recognisable spirit of watercolour comes, instead, in a brilliant little sketch by Van Dyck of an English sea coast bristling with ships’ masts. A wash of rainy sky. Some quickly implied trees. Everything you know watercolour to be good at is already being practised.
Rather than stride chronologically through the story ahead so that everything slots into a recognisable position in the journey — I cannot remember the last time a Tate show gave us a secure picture of anyone or anything’s development — the show treats us instead to a succession of themed displays in which the story of the watercolour is batted backwards and forwards. Travel and Topography gives us the superb Turners we were expecting. His Blue Rigi, recently “saved for the nation” after a public outcry, is here, sublime and magnificent. Mixed in with the expected Cotmans, Cozenses and Girtins, however, is the unexpected interior of a Mexican church, painted by Edward Burra in 1938. Where most travelling British watercolourists bring a sense of amiable daydream to their observational task, Burra reacts to the sight of a dead Christ in a Mexican church with a loud watercolour shriek, as if a cat has just had someone heavy step on its tail.
Another themed room introduces us to The Exhibition Watercolour. It’s something the Victorians came up with, and basically involved watercolours pretending they were not watercolours. Fed up with being viewed as a timid, lesser medium — and fed up, too, I bet, with the lesser prices that could be charged for such a contribution — the Victorian watercolour embarked on an ambitious rebrand and grew vastly in size. With risible results. Burne-Jones shows us an extra-large medieval knight receiving a big hug about the armour from a wooden statue of Christ, while Walter Langley paints a sobbing mother and her sobbing daughter sobbing out of a window above a title that declares: But Men Must Work and Women Must Weep. Weep, too, must any half-sentient modern observer of this manipulative Victorian twaddle.
All this is interesting, and worth the journey. For my tastes, though, the organisers are excessively keen to change our minds about the pre-eminence of the golden age of English watercolour and do not, therefore, show us nearly enough of it. I certainly came expecting more great Turners, more Cotmans; more Ruskins, more Holman Hunts. Blake, too, although he is the thematic linchpin of a section dealing with Inner Vision, seems weirdly under-represented.
These omissions, however, are only irritating. The serious problems begin in the show’s final stretches, which are, frankly, awful. So fearful are the organisers of watercolour being seen as an old-fashioned or mumsy medium, they proceed to shovel a host of contemporary practitioners into the display who are deeply undeserving of such inclusion. Notable among these, and typical, is the feeble Jenny Franklin, who drips watercolours onto paper, then firms up the accidental shapes that result into amorphous blobs vaguely reminiscent of natural features. “Central to my practice is the role of chance as the creative partner of intention,” she explains dimly, as if unaware of the fact that the surrealists invented exactly these methods well nigh a century before her, with far more exciting results.
Even less impressive is the inclusion of watercolourists who are patently not watercolourists. The final gallery, Abstraction and Improvisation, begins with a bright splodge by Sandra Blow, described clearly on the label as “Acrylic and collage on canvas”. At the other end of the room is a floaty sculpture by Karla Black, made of “cellophane, watercolour, emulsion, acrylic paints, Vaseline, glass, shampoo, hair gel, toothpaste, thread”. The organisers are presumably trying to change our narrow understanding of watercolour and attempting to make it look groovy, multifaceted, contemporary. They are also, alas, elbowing common sense out of the window.