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Love of queens and princes

Watercolour: only a medium but what a medium! It’s so versatile, and when painting the landscape it can respond with lightning speed to changes in the weather.

23 September 2009

12:00 AM

23 September 2009

12:00 AM

Watercolour: only a medium but what a medium! It’s so versatile, and when painting the landscape it can respond with lightning speed to changes in the weather.

Watercolour: only a medium but what a medium! It’s so versatile, and when painting the landscape it can respond with lightning speed to changes in the weather. The latter’s unpredictability has made it our most predictable national topic and the English have long taken watercolours to their hearts, both as practitioners and as collectors. Indeed, Queen Victoria (a watercolourist herself) presided over no fewer than two comparable organisations, the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS), founded in 1804, plus the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (RI), which became Royal in 1885. Queen Elizabeth II has questioned the logic of retaining two apparently similar bodies but Prince Charles, a noted practitioner, is patron of both. As Macheath puts it in The Beggar’s Opera: ‘How happy could I be with either, Were t’other dear charmer away!’


It is sometimes said that our monarchy has survived partly by espousing the best middle-class customs and values — while appreciating that aristocrats tend to have more fun. Significantly enough, in the bourgeois realms of The Forsyte Saga, it is Young Jolyon, the freethinking professional watercolourist, who finally captures Galsworthy’s personification of ‘beauty’, namely Irene, lovely ex-wife of the stuffy, possessive Soames.

I was recently one of five judges of the RWS/Sunday Times Watercolour Competition. We sat in a huge room in Kensington surrounded by seemingly countless framed paintings, including works in thick acrylic, which I happen to think is a pity but it’s not against the rules, which allow any ‘water-based’ media. Our first task was to sort out the hundred best pictures for a travelling show: Smith & Williamson, Moorgate, London EC2 (until 4 October); Barber Institute, Birmingham (9 October to 8 November); and then on to Smith & Williamson’s Salisbury offices from 13 November.

Our second task was to award various prizes. The best cityscape prize went to Janet Kenyon for ‘Northern Lights, Blackpool’; Jonathan Huxley won the prize for cover art. But the main prize was won by Jonathan Pike for ‘Monte Carlo’, a beautifully intricate but powerful portrait of a building’s façade, skilfully depicting eight balconies in depth.

Second prize went to Danny Markey for ‘Camper Van and Car, Falmouth Bay’. This is an absolute classic in the technical sense. Markey (who, like some of the greatest watercolourists from Turner to Cézanne, also paints in oil) has scarcely touched the paper with his brush more than once. As a result the landscape of sky, land and water has become luminous. Watercolour painting of this apparently artless sort is exceptionally difficult to achieve. It is all about releasing the light imprisoned in the white paper. You have to calculate exactly the right contrasting tones in advance as well as guessing how each one will dry. A safer way but with less pristine results is to build up layer upon layer of washes.

Watercolour is only a medium but during the evolution of modern painting it has been marginalised and patronised by some artists and critics who should know better. Ben Nicholson, for example, tried to expel watercolourists from the forward-looking Seven and Five Society during the early 1930s in order to make British artists more ‘modern’ and ‘continental’. He then told them that they must paint only abstracts. Unsurprisingly, the Society collapsed. John Piper had complied with both Nicholson initiatives but subsequently felt ashamed of it. In England you can temporarily take landscape out of watercolour but you can’t permanently take watercolour out of landscape — or any other subject.


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