handprint : victorian watercolors
 
Victorian watercolors (c.1835-c.1900) represent the culmination of developments described under Late Georgian watercolors. They are a remarkable high point in the watercolor tradition, both in the diversity of the artistic styles and in the technical sophistication of the paintings. Yet this is also a period of imaginative mediocrity and naked kitsch: as Martin Hardie wrote, "to a large extent the water-colours of the Victorian era reflect the dullness, vulgarity, pretentiousness and self-righteousness of the period." Unfortunately, this dour critical verdict has consigned many amazing technical achievements to unjustified obscurity. These works still have much to teach the contemporary painter.

First, the historical context. The conservative Royal Academy and the two watercolor societies maintained control of the top tiers of the art hierarchy, but dissenting or regional groups continued to form as watercolors reached the zenith of their institutional and amateur popularity. The groundbreaking Norwich Society of Artists, founded in 1803 and active until the 1830's, was the strongest group of artists working outside London. Toward the end of the Victorian era, many regional art exhibitions — in Liverpool, Newcastle, Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol — flourished on the popularity of amateur watercolor painting. In London, the Dudley Gallery (active from 1865 to 1882) provided unjuried exhibition space to watercolor artists excluded from the established watercolor societies, thereby sustaining market interest in the painting talents of unconventional professionals and accomplished amateurs alike. And of amateurs there was no dearth: this was the peak of watercolor popularity, when everyone from common schoolchildren to the Royal couple Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was out painting the English countryside.  

The Dudley Gallery exhibitions were known for their display of paintings that went against the academic grain — a wealth of genre paintings, and in particular the freely executed style known as the watercolor sketch. The conservative emphasis on "finish" in exhibition watercolors had created a popular appreciation for the watercolor sketch, which was seen as a more sincere, more lyrical, and more infectiously spontaneous type of art. It also put the unique strengths of the watercolor medium on best display, and allowed the artist to exploit "rough" visual effects (a partially visible graphite or charcoal underdrawing, rapid and expressive brushwork, blossoms and other watermarks, drybrush textures, and colors mixed on the page). The sketch came to stand for romantic sentiment, an opposition to academic or institutional standards of art, and the artistic goal of observing nature directly to capture natural phenomena more accurately — an increasingly explicit 19th century painting practice in contrast to the idealized conventions of the 18th century. In retaliation, the established societies began in 1843 to hold separate winter exhibits for the display of watercolor sketches, but with mixed results: most artists exhibited "sketches" that were obviously as carefully contrived as their finished works. As late as 1884, the American painter James McNeil Whistler could still be derided by a critic for displaying watercolors that seemed "little more than hints and memoranda." 

For in this period English painters finally succeeded in making watercolors the visual equal of oil painting. They achieved this in part by expanding the format of watercolors (sometimes to three or more feet wide, thanks to custom watercolor papers made by James Whatman) and by hanging the paintings in ornate gilt frames. Prices increased with size, too, which provided many artists with a comfortable or even lucrative professional income and the incentive to invest more labor in watercolor painting. But the crucial technical innovation was the development of a proprietary, extremely fine zinc white, manufactured expressly for watercolors under the name Chinese white by Winsor & Newton in 1834. Artists used this new paint as a highly reflective foundation color applied directly to the paper, as a slightly "clouding" pigment to lend a hazy appearance to washes (a technique originated by J.M.W. Turner), and as an opacifying additive that transformed standard watercolor pigments into gouache or bodycolor. (Unmodified or "transparent" watercolors could still be used for glazing or for contrasting color effects.) When finished off with a thick coating of gum varnish, these paintings achieved a brilliance of color and an evenness of surface that in some cases was indistinguishable from oil paintings. Gouache also let painters apply the paint with the same patient accumulation of brushstrokes as they used in oils, making the works appear more substantial and finely wrought. From the very first, many artists disputed the "legitimacy" of bodycolor techniques, claiming opaque color "violated" the spirit of transparent watercolor (in Victorian times, "violate" meant "rape") — and remarkably, some 21st century watercolor artists still echo these polemical myths. But art consumers voted with their pocketbooks, and for several decades bodycolor carried the day.

Guiding public taste through these conflicting artistic trends was a new type of journalistic art critic, including many former or practicing painters, such as the nationalistic William Henry Pyne (1769-1845, writing after 1820 under the name Ephraim Hardcastle) and the magisterial and brilliant John Ruskin — who literally taught the Victorians which paintings to admire, and why. Underneath the surface of the critical reviews of the time were several cultural preoccupations: the importance of status or "dead" tradition (the societies) in contrast to "living" innovation (the Dudley and Grosvenor galleries); "masculine" styles (David Cox) vs. "feminine" or sentimental styles (Birket Foster); the schools of photographic "detail" (Price Boyce) and poetic "effect" (Samuel Palmer); finish vs. sketch; and bodycolor vs. transparent color. These labelmongering and trivial debates were an inevitable outgrowth of institutional status struggles, artistic careerism and consumer uncertainty. But the reviews in Victorian periodicals such as Art Journal had a significant effect on consumer tastes and purchase decisions, so all these debates affected the artists' bottom line.

The stakes got pretty high: art collectors paid significantly increased prices for paintings by Turner, David Cox, Peter DeWint and other respected masters of the recent past, especially after 1850, and many galleries and art speculators profited from the ever increasing demand for contemporary artworks during the continuous prosperity of Victorian England. Novel watercolor effects became popular — more intense and prismatic colors in particular, thanks to the new dyes created by 19th century industrial chemistry. Market pressures in turn stimulated ambitious artists to adopt these untested, brighter but fugitive pigments or to use radically experimental painting methods (John Sell Cotman made many late paintings with an unreliable medium of starch paste). This cycle of increasingly unrealistic prices paid for kitschier paintings executed with more fugitive or untested materials — and the decisive tilt toward oils by innovative French painters and traditional French art academies — culminated after 1890 in a collapse of confidence in watercolors as investment art. Watercolors have never really recovered the artistic capital lost in that catastrophe.
 

watercolor
artists
But at midcentury watercolors were near the peak of their popularity, and John Frederick Lewis (1805-1876) was among the artists at the top. Son of a London engraver, he began as a wildlife portraitist in oils, but switched to watercolors and was elected to the Old Water-Colour Society (OWCS) in 1827. He made long trips through the Continent (first to Venice, then to Spain), contributing to the flood of travel publications with his Lewis's Sketches and Drawings of the Alhambra (1835) and a sequel work. He travelled abroad again in 1837, settling in Cairo in 1841 where he stayed for 10 years perfecting a meticulous bodycolor technique. Upon his return to London in 1851, his paintings received enormous critical acclaim. Courtyard of the Painter's House (c.1847, 92x126cm) combines the elements common to these works — Moorish architecture and interiors, camels and carvanseries, inlaid woods. This tiny image cannot convey it, but the masonry and marquetry in both walls of the building are meticulously described. The hareem paintings contain the two elements of kitsch that run throughout this period: astonishing technical virtuosity that is displayed for its own sake (Lewis often gets down to the stitching in exotic fabrics and the individual barbs on a peacock's feather), and completely sentimentalized distortions of reality (all Lewis's hareem women are tidy, anglicized and blandly smiling). In 1858 Lewis abandoned the OWCS and his exotic watercolors, claiming he could not get prices high enough to justify the amount of work he put into them. He took up oil painting instead, and ascended to the Royal Academy in 1859.
 
Miles Birket Foster (1825-1899) came to watercolors in his late 20's and produced amazingly detailed sentimental landscapes until the end of his life. He was raised in London and apprenticed to a wood engraver. During the 1840's he worked as an illustrator for periodicals such as Punch and the Illustrated London News, but after a tour of the Rhineland in 1852-53 he taught himself to paint in watercolors and launched a hugely popular painting career. He was elected to the OWCS in 1860, and contributed over 400 paintings to exhibitions there and at the Royal Academy. From the first he was one of the society's most popular artists; along with William Henry Hunt, he epitomizes the meticulous and sentimental realism of the Victorian era. In 1863 he settled in Surrey and began a long series of sentimental rural paintings, but also regularly toured England and the Continent, producing some beautiful paintings of Venice. Burnham Beeches (c.1861, 21x33cm) shows him at the beginning of his career and highlights his lifelong delight in color. The ancient birches of Buckinghamshire grew in a popular recreational park just outside London, and Birket Foster shows two children absorbed in the golden leaves: the combination of saturated colors, childhood, autumn and old trees are typical of the Victorian sentimental imagination. Using bodycolor to lay in a broad background of luminous yellow, Birket Foster then applied minute stippling touches of diluted burnt sienna and vermilion to build up the clouds and carpets of foliage (one critic described this method as "tickling the picture to death with small touches"). Throughout the trunks of the trees, the ground and the waters in the background, Birket Foster's technique of stippling and crosshatching of one color over another (the brushstrokes often resemble an engraver's cuts) provides beautiful texture and color excitement — and a conscious display of extraordinary technical skill. Unfortunately Birket Foster's later paintings are repetitious images of wholesome, rustic milkmaids and shepherdesses communing chastely with the vernal soul of England, but in his travel paintings (of Venice in particular) he used his realist technique with great conviction to bring nostalgic moments to life.
 
Another illustrator turned watercolorist, Frederick Walker (1840-1875) was the son of a Marylebone jeweller who encouraged his son's art career. Walker worked briefly for an architect, taught himself the principles of classical design among the antiquities at the British Museum, then entered the Royal Academy schools in 1858. He trained for three years under the wood engraver Josiah Whymper (1813-1903), and after 1860 was a much sought after illustrator of books and periodicals under the tutelage of William Thackeray. He exhibited his first oils at the Royal Academy in 1863 and joined the OWCS in 1864. His paintings of apparently simple but overly sentimental rural and rustic life, utilizing the painting techniques of William Henry Hunt and Birket Foster, were enormously popular and influenced many imitators. He adopted a more classicizing style in his large oil paintings and attempted to copy this style in some of his watercolors, with mixed success. After 1868 Walker was increasingly afflicted by tuberculosis, and he died at age 35 while on a fishing trip in northern Scotland. Spring (1864, 62x50cm) is one of the four watercolors shown at the Old Society the year of his election, and was considered one of Walker's finest works by collectors of the time (He reportedly said he worked at it for over 18 months — "I never spent so much time and trouble on anything before.") A young girl and boy are gathering primroses in a copse; the girl has just spied a small grouping of flowers through the dew spangled branches of a leafless bush, her raincoat draped over one arm. The effect of overlapping leaves and twigs is carefully built up with opaque gouache through the standard Victorian technique of painstaking color stippling and crosshatching; pure white is used as tiny points of accent within each dewdrop. The face of the girl is rosy cheeked and cloying, but the figure drawing is quite good, reflecting Walker's longstanding interest in life drawing classes and classical sculpture.

Birket Foster and Walker were among the descriptively precise, illustrator artists most enthusiastically endorsed by the watercolor societies and most congenial to collectors, conservative art critics, and the Germanic tastes of stodgy Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. This style emphasized the "honest-to-God workmanship" of painstaking drawing and tedious brushwork — combined with heightened color and a heavy gilt frame — that were so much valued in the Victorian watercolor. But several talented artists adopted or cautiously innovated within the traditions of Late Georgian painters. For many of these, the poetical "effect" found in paintings by David Cox or J.M.W. Turner was the primary source of inspiration.
 

Thomas Collier (1840-1891) was the son of a prosperous tradesman; he attended the Manchester School of Art before moving in 1864 to northern Wales to paint in the footsteps of his idol, David Cox. Collier moved to London around 1870, when was elected to the New Water-Colour Society. He was not a prolific exhibitor, but collectors and critics then and today consider him one of the masters of the English landscape watercolor; he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in acclaim of a painting he sent to the Paris International Exhibition of 1878. Hardworking, shy and often in poor health, yet enabled by a family stipend to work without concern for popular tastes and travel to observe the English countryside (especially in Suffolk), in 1879 Collier built a large house and studio in Hampstead (Longdon) where he spent the rest of his life tirelessly perfecting his studio craft and receiving artist visitors. Arundel Park (c.1878, 24x36cm) is a fine example of Collier's style, containing what a contemporary review called "the peacefulness of DeWint and the force of the elder Cox" within a small (quarter sheet) format. Collier preferred flat horizons with a slight depression in the middle distance, lying under a complex sky of broken clouds. Here he has composed the darkest and lightest values in crisp contrast along the edge of the trees — in this way accenting the distance between land and sky and enhancing the effect of silvery sunlight over the entire scene. Collier's technique, perhaps typical of a conservative landscape painter at this time, deserves mention. He once wrote that "I always paint a subject as simply and as direct from nature as possible, using the fewest colours I can." His palette consisted of 12 paints (genuine gamboge, yellow ochre, raw sienna, burnt sienna, light red, indian red, crimson lake, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, prussian blue, indigo and lamp black — the black mostly to subdue other colors, and to mix darks), and he always painted with dry pan watercolors (even in the studio) on unstretched rough textured paper. Collier used a mixture of gamboge, black and crimson lake for dark foreground browns, and intensely staining colors (such as prussian blue) were mostly used in tints. He sometimes used rose madder, purple madder and dark browns (umber, sepia, vandyke brown) for special effects. The emphasis on earth colors — instead of brighter colors such as cadmium yellow, aureolin or vermilion — continues the topographical painter's preference for subdued warm paints that is characteristic of the classical palette. Collier was a firm believer in outdoor sketching and valued a careful record of natural light and weather effects, and despite his weak health he pursued those goals in all weather. Most of his works are small (10"x14" or smaller) landscapes, many of them sketches done plein air and the rest started outdoors and completed in the studio, with only a dozen larger (half or full sheet) works painted in the studio. Neglected today, Collier's paintings are among the finest produced in the Victorian era; as Martin Hardie put it, "in resolute constancy to the virtues of water-colour Collier surpasses Cox. He is to be reckoned among the masters."
 
A more impressionistic painter in the landscape tradition was John William Inchbold (1830-1888), who received some instruction in drawing in his native Leeds before moving to London to study color lithography with Louis Haghe; he entered the Royal Academy schools in 1847, and exhibited watercolors at the Society of British Artists. In the 1850's he was an oil painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and mentored by John Ruskin, with a style that resembles J.M.W. Turner's atmospheric paintings of the 1820's. But he began to develop a more personal landscape style during several excursions to Italy and the Alps, possibly following Ruskin's affection for those mountains. In the 1860's he reverted to an atmospheric landscape style in watercolors, especially in paintings of Venice. Unfortunately his loose style was less popular with Victorian art collectors, and from 1869 Inchbold was harried by financial problems. He finally moved to Montreux (Switzerland) in 1877, where he spent the final decade of his life painting exclusively Swiss views after his own heart. View Above Montreux (1880, 31x51cm) is a superb example of his late style. The picture combines wash layers of transparent watercolors to represent the distant Swiss mountains and the surface of Lake Geneva, with a gouache rendering of the structures, hillside and trees. The effects of direct and reflected sunlight are beautifully played off the silhouettes of dark branches and distant ship, and given greater effect by the complementary contrast between dull violet and pale yellow green. The horizon is placed high, with a downward direction of view, giving the picture the weight of concave curves. Inchbold's paintings from this period are intensely felt and free in technique, with a boldly calligraphic brush style that creates an impression of accurate observation, and rich contrasts of thick gouache color and texture laid over a foundation of transparent watercolor washes.
 
Another superb talent who extended the watercolor traditions with a personal style is Edward Lear (1812-1888), much more famous for his limericks and nonsense poems but now gaining wider appreciation for his watercolors. The youngest of 21 (!) children, Lear drew colored pictures of birds "for bread and cheese" as a youth, and at age 19 landed an appointment as draftsman at the Zoological Gardens in London. He illustrated several ambitious books and print series on birds, then extended his drawing experience (and aristocratic acquaintances) while employed at the menagerie of the Earl of Derby at Knowlsey, Lancashire; at that time he gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria. His travels from 1837 to 1870, much too extensive to describe in detail, covered most of England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Egypt, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, India and Sri Lanka; in 1871 he retired to the Italian Riviera. Lear was a tireless and enthusiastic artist, completing over 10,000 drawings — which rarely sold at auction, but instead were distributed among his many friends — several major oil paintings, and books of rhyming whimsy. The Dead Sea (1858, 37x55cm) shows the essence of Lear's style, which seems much indebted to the classic watercolor pen and wash drawings of Francis Towne. In the field, Lear quickly sketched the scene in pencil, littering the page with playfully mispelled, macaronic notes about locations, the heat and time of day, ravaging insects and the subtle colors of the scene. Back in his studio on winter evenings, Lear painstakingly inked in these drawings — a fine nib and blue ink for the distant hills, bistre ink with a broad reed pen for the near distance — and washed in a limited range of colors, typically earth yellow, burnt sienna, light red, and ultramarine blue or ultramarine ash. His peculiar style of coloring in specific objects or areas, and leaving the rest of the page blank (but scrawled with his many location notes), lends his drawings an uncannily modern and many voiced mixture of color, text, bare paper and wiry, observant drawing. Lear had a great passion for drawing, travel and the society of the well travelled aristocracy, and this passion lives in his art. Martin Hardie wrote, "Turner alone had the same zest for life, the same infinite capacity for work," then adds, almost as a reproach, "but Turner, though he did try his hand at poetry, could not write nonsense verse."
 
Toward the end of the century several Victorian painters began searching out new effects in brush technique and in particular new color harmonies. John William North (1842-1924) studied at the Marlborough House School of Art and worked as a wood engraver in the shop of Josiah Whymper, where he met Fred Walker. From 1862-66 North worked as a magazine illustrator, but moved to Somerset (in Wessex) where he lived and worked for most of the rest of his life. He was elected to the OWCS in 1871 and to the Royal Academy in 1893. The Old Pear Tree (1892, 73x96cm) is a fine late painting that illustrates the culmination of North's long years of patient experimentation with technique and materials. In 1895 he entered a business venture with the Hayle Mill to develop a 100% linen watercolor paper (sized with pure, sterilized gelatin) that was extraordinarily hard and resistant to lifting and scraping techniques. This "OWS Paper" produced blotchy washes (North reputedly always had trouble with his skies) but it withstood any abuse and could even be ironed from the back, like a starched shirt. On this and similar papers North experimented for many years to produce a highly detailed painting style using only transparent watercolor and no gouache. His characteristic late paintings use a peach, brown, rose and violet color scheme (with accents of dull green) to produce the effect of an autumnal and decaying light, with overgrown grasses, stagnant waters and dwarfish trees that seem to luminesce inside their dark edges — an effect at once mystical and vaguely disturbing. North built up his forms through microscopic dots and touches of pure color, anticipating by more than a decade the better known pointilliste effects of 20th century French artists; his relentless attention to detail led a few contemporaries to suggest that he painted while using a telescope. Reclusive and somewhat eccentric, and inclined to putter unproductively until seized by a poetic inspiration, North's landscapes were most influential on young painters whose work extends into the 20th century.
 
Toward the end of the 19th century an indigenous school of Scottish painters began to coalesce, leading to the formation of the Scottish Society of Painters in Water-Colour in 1878 (made Royal in 1888). One of the leaders in the "Glasgow School" of painters, though with a style that few other painters imitated, was Arthur Melville (1855-1904). Based in Edinburgh, he studied at the Academie Julien in Paris in 1878 and worked in the artist colony in Barbizon (France). During 1880-82 he travelled to the Middle East and Egypt, and visited Algiers later in life. In 1885 he visited Orkney Island with fellow Scots artist James Guthrie, and there adopted a much darker palette. Widely active, he was elected to the RWS in 1888 and moved to London the following year. Kirkwall, Orkney (1885, 37x51cm) is a good example of the dusky brown palette that Melville preferred in later life, partly under the influence of James McNeill Whistler. A sour yellow violet sunset, the distant silhouette of St. Magnus Cathedral and the Kirkwall slopes look down on a humble farm woman standing in her cabbage patch. The colors are laid on very broadly, mixed in diffusely overlapping blots with sharp accents of color detail, including the white of the woman's apron (Girtin's White House, again). Forms and details barely emerge from the background, identified as a city by the distant towers. Melville's technique (as described by his friend Theodore Roussel) is worth describing: he began by soaking the paper in a bath of diluted chinese white until it was thoroughly impregnated with the color, then let the paper completely dry. He then rewetted the surface, and dropped in pure browns, reds and blues to build the shapes, painting with diffuse blobs of color rather than touches of the brush. Once the values and basic forms were blocked out in this way, Melville gradually intervened with more directed brushstrokes as the paper dried, helping to define forms and figures to produce the final somber, atmospheric effect.

Besides these artists there were dozens of others, each with a distinctive twist to their style: the fey bug eyed children of Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), the anthropologically scrupulous paintings of Surrey cottages by a disciple of Birket Foster, Helen Allingham (1848-1926), the whimsical and still beloved book illustrations of Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), the hallucinatory fairy stories of the brothers Charles Altamont Doyle (1832-1893) and Richard Doyle (1824-1883), the orotund historical platitudes of George John Pinwell (1842-1875) and Sir John Gilbert (1817-1897), the sentimental landscapes of Albert Goodwin (1845-1932), the scrupulous landscape photorealism of Edward John Poynter (1836-1919), Wilmot Pilsbury (1840-1908) and William Fraser Garden (1856-1921); the list is much larger than this. The Victorian era was a time when representationalism was the dominant style; but within that style elements of the industrial present or chivalrous past, fact or fairyland, sentimentality or austerity, technical perfection or spontaneous roughness, figure or landscape, and colors brilliant or subdued all vied in many different combinations to achieve the goals of market superiority or esthetic truth, depending on the aspirations of the individual artist.

See also The Pre-Raphaelites.

It's impossible in a brief selection to convey the variety and novelty of Victorian watercolors. The best landscape overview I have seen is the exhibition catalog Victorian Landscape Watercolors by Scott Wilcox and Christopher Newall (Yale Center for British Art, 1992). A wider selection of genres and less well known artists is available in Victorian Watercolors by Christopher Newall (Phaidon, 1994). Both of these books are still in print. There is a limited but carefully chosen selection available in The Great Age of British Watercolors by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles (Prestel, 1993). Once you have identified artists who interest you, then Martin Hardie's Water-Colour Painting in Britain: III. The Victorian Period (Batsford, 1968) contains the best overall coverage of each painter's career and works, though Hardie's personal tastes clearly emerge in the amount of space devoted to each painter.

 

Last revised 11.12.2007 • © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy