Talk at the British Museum – Redefining the golden age of watercolour landscape painting

This talk was about landscape watercolours from the 1880s to the early 20th century and broadly talked about the shifting aesthetics within this period. It started with comments on the Victorian aesthetic, very detailed highly tech finished technique. A typical Victorian watercolour landscape would be similar to this by Helen Allingham, Cowdray cottage.

This is a classic piece showing a period cottage with “Gertrude Jekyll” type of wild garden. Hollyhocks are portrayed in the garden with winsome female figures standing at the entrance to the garden.


Artists at this time wanted to preserve nature and the vernacular buildings. But it is a very idealised image, it doesn’t represent the troubled times that existed then in rural areas. The female figures portrayed are thin and winsome despite carrying out heavy manual tasks such as carrying water. But this is what Victorian audiences wanted to see.


As a reaction to this a period of aestheticism followed, epitomised by the works of James McNeill Whistler. He introduced a preference for form over narrative, art for arts sake. Linked to this was Japonisme, the interest in Japanese art in the 1860s and then a little later the influence of French Impressionism.


Three Whistler images were used as examples of this radical shift.

Nocturne from the 1880s.

Whistler was very careful about the titles he gave to his works. This image was extremely radical for the times and genuinely shocked people. It is all about suggestion e.g. the marks on the bottom left corner suggesting figures.


Some of his works were very small (5 x 8”) which was also radical. For example

The Thames at Battersea c1876-78

Whistler used a much more tonal colour palette and embodied the influence of Japanese art.

Whistler’s precise use of title was illustrated in

Blue and brown – Westgate – the Moors, c1886

The title emphasises reform over narrative, the artist wants you to see first of all the colours of the image. Again there is a suggestion of figures on the horizon.


The frame for this work was very contemporary and Whistler was very insistent on the frame and other aspects when his paintings were exhibited – lighting, wall colour and spareness.


We then looked at the work of Hercules Brabazon Brabazon and and his depictions of Venice.


This is very much in the tradition of Whistler and the French Impressionists. This also contains the idea of suggestion and a mixture of loose handled washes and dabs of paint. In John Singer Sargent’s Torrent in the Val D’Aosta c1907.


One can very much see the influence of French Impressionism. It is an extremely gestural piece. You do not see a wider narrative come, compositionally it is very cut off – it forces the eye on to the gesture, the paint and the brushwork.


But by the 1920s there was a reaction against Impressionism and against the breaking up of the surface in painting.


Some artists created a sparser watercolour for example Eric Ravilious in 1923 Wannock Dew Pond.

This demonstrates a painted painterly reaction against Impressionism. It demonstrates that Ravilious was looking back to the work of  John Sell Cotman

And Francis Towne

And being inspired by them bringing a much sparser feel to his watercolours.

It was a fascinating talk to attend and made me think much more deeply about what is a landscape and how is it portrayed:

  • It can be a simple representation
  • It can be idealised, what you want it to look like rather than what it really is
  • it can just be suggested

And what is more important – a recognisable feature or just the colours as in Whistler’s paintings above?