Angela Summerfield

A very British medium

Watercolour, that quintessentially British medium and form of expression, is currently enjoying a revival of interest among contemporary artists and academics alike. Following on from Tate Britain’s riveting Thomas Girtin exhibition and Hockney’s forays into the Nordic and Yorkshire landscapes come two exciting and enchanting shows, a short bus journey between the two. Both offer a rare opportunity to see in London otherwise inaccessible works.

At Messum’s, the show of north Yorkshire artists includes small-scale atmospheric watercolours and mixed-media works, of the dales, by Peter Hicks. In Len Tabner’s small- and large-scale works, one can see how the thick handmade paper has been flooded with watercolour to create dramatic tensions, as the watercolour, wet on wet, is manipulated in unison with opaque materials, such as chalk, pastel and pencil. As the catalogue author, Jenny Pery, states, such works as ‘Whitby from Upgang Shore, April 12th 2005’ represent a ‘passionate account of one man’s experience of the watery, earthy, fiery and airy elements with which we are all surrounded’. In marked contrast are the colourful abstract watercolours by William Tillyer. These explore the wonderful range of watercolour’s pellucid possibilities: transparent layers of infinite depth and variety — as Thomas Girtin was the first to discover; large areas of seemingly arm-length action which pour, spill and spin across and into the special Arches paper’s surface.

We can discover the original uses, investigations and experimentations of watercolour at the Hermitage Rooms. The hang, deliberately designed so as to enhance the sense of a domestic atmosphere, is arranged thematically: Antiquity and Ruins; Artists Abroad; Seascapes and Figures; Landscape and Nature; Trees and Woodland. On display is, for the first time, largely the entire collection of 18th- and 19th-century British watercolours, formed by William Wycliffe Spooner and his wife Mercie, and bequeathed to the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1967; the Courtauld will shortly be opening a prints and drawings room, so as to make its seminal and formerly study collections accessible to the public, as well as offering images on-line.

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