Why water-colour is popular in EnglandIt makes fewer demands on the artist and on the public than oil painting-The improved conditions of the present time The promising outlook for the future.
THE remark has often been made that we are indebted to the water colour painters for the only adequate expression of the peculiar qualities of the English nation which is to be found in art. This opinion is certainly exaggerated, and if it is taken to imply that for English artists water colour is a more adequate form of expression than oil painting, it is positively misleading. But on the whole the public seems to take almost greater interest and pleasure in the work of the water colour painters than in works in oil.
The reason for this is probably to be sought in the conditions of modern life. The elaborate ritual of oil painting requires a more settled framework of society and greater Solidarity of feeling than are to be found any-where in Europe at the present time. For the painter of great oil pictures cannot be a solitary worker. He must catch his inspiration from those around him, working, if not actually at their instigation, at least with their connivance. Princes should egg him on and the hearts of the people chaunt a ready response to his strophes. We may compare the oil picture to the epic ; and the epic does not flourish under modern conditions of life.
The oil painter aspires to speak an universal language, but since the French Revolution there has been little of common thought and sentiment in Europe. Art therefore has had to narrow its appeal to individuals and separate classes of separate nations. So that instead of an instrument of the greatest capacity, authority, and grandeur, which can operate regardless of time and cost, an instrument of smaller compass and easier and quicker manipulation has been called for. And this the English artist has found in water colour painting. Water colour is not only a wonderfully pliable and expressive medium, but it is one which makes the artist less immediately dependent upon those around him than almost any other instrument of expression. It appeals to the public more intimately than the abstractions of etching or any of the various forms of colourless engraving. And even in the absence of public support artists like Cotman, whose opportunities of production are confined to their moments of leisure, have been able to express something of their own personality.
It is not perhaps misleading to say that water colour forms the pictorial equivalent of the Gelegenheitsgedicht which Goethe, in 1823, advised the young poets of his time to cultivate. ” I attach no value to poems snatched out of the air,” he said to Eckermann, and it is just this temptation to snatch masterpieces out of the air to which the ambitious painter of today most frequently succumbs. The water colour painter, on the contrary, can confine himself to small subjects, freshly dashing off what the day offers him. “The world,” Goethe added, ” is so great and rich, and life so full of variety, that you never want occasions for poems. But they must all be occasional poems ; that is to say, reality must give both impulse and material for their production.” That our water colour painters have proved the truth of Goethe’s contention, that the reality is never lacking in poetical interest, is amply demonstrated even by a glance at the illustrations in this unpretending little volume.
The readiness with which the water colour painter can convert any particular case into something universal and poetic, and the skill with which an interesting side has so often been won from common subjects, have endeared his art to the people of this country ; while the cheapness of his productions has suited their pockets, and the small size of his drawings their unambitious dwellings. Certainly, to-day the art of water colour painting is better acclimatised in our barbarous country than any other form of pictorial art.
It is therefore a matter for congratulationat least to those of us who hope that it will not always be possible to say, as Lord Salisbury said in 1901, that the English nation do not care for artthat the conditions under which our water colour painters work are so much more favourable now than they were fifty or even twenty years ago. “Exhibition finish,” the idol of the Mandarins of art, no longer excites the awe it once inspired. A standard of trade execution, of professional “technique,” of “real painting, as such,” has been discredited, and the vital bonds between form and content, between manner and matter, is better understood. The monopoly of the Academy has been shattered, and the establishment of numerous exhibition societies and the enterprise of private dealers have made it more difficult to suppress the artist who has something to say and an individual way of saying it.
The exhibitions of the New English Art Club alone have introduced artists like Messrs Steer, Fry, Rich, Tonks, and Clausen to the notice of the public. In the hands of these gifted young artists, water colour painting has regained much of the freshness and virility it seemed to have lost during the latter part of the last century. Speaking generally, these artists are agreed in discarding the arbitrary and unreal colours of Turner’s prismatic period, and in a return to the soberer tints of Girtin and of Turner’s earlier work. But this is not the result of any common doctrine or “programme.” The work of each artist is thoroughly personal and sincere.
This is hardly the place to attempt to describe the work of these artists in detail. But those who care for fine and original things will not easily forget the Village Street, The Pond, and the other exquisite water colours which Mr Clausen has exhibited recently at the Goupil Gallery. Mr Roger Fry’s exhibition at the Carfax Gallery during April and May 1903, drew attention to the work of an artist of rare thoughtfulness and dignity. The talent of Mr A. W. Rich has been more amply demonstrated at his exhibitions in the hall of the Alpine Club than in his occasional contributions to the New English Art Club. Mr P. Wilson Steer’s superb drawings have generally been reckoned among the most enjoyable features of the exhibitions of the New English Art Club, while Mr Henry Tonks’s mastery over the water colour medium his limpid, graceful, yet nervously vigorous stylewas only fully revealed to the public in his exhibition at the Carfax Gallery in May last. With such artists as these working among us today no one can despair of the immediate future of water colour painting in England.