English Water Coulour Painters – Introductory

Is water colour painting a peculiarly English art’?—Some foreign water colours of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—Evidence that the English artists were not restricted to a narrow range of colour—English water colour practice is no more novel and original than its oil practice—The greatness of the English water colour school does not depend upon the question of the origin of technical processes—nor is the beauty of the early English water colours the result of defective or limited material—The danger of making artistic excellence depend upon the number of colours used—Evolution or fatalism versus the standard of worth.

ENGLISH artists have always taken so kindly to work in water colour, they have shown such ready mastery of its possibilities, and the beautiful results they have secured have been so warmly and so sincerely admired, that it has seemed quite natural to speak of water colour painting as the distinctive national art of England. It is undoubtedly a form of expression suited both to the genius of the English artists and to the taste of the English public. With no churches or other public buildings to decorate the arts of the sculptor and the oil painter lie oppressed under the weight of public indifference and apathy. The water colour painter, on the other hand, works for the private apartments of individuals. His modest drawings can only be seen by two or three people at a time ; his art, one might say, is essentially an intimate, personal, conversational one. So that a society like that of England during the nineteenth century — a society in which the rights of individuals have been very largely insisted upon and the claims of authority and tradition somewhat ignored —would naturally afford more scope for the exercise of an art which does not, like oil painting, require the scope of a large audience knit together by the ties of thoughts and sympathies held in common.

We may admit, then, that the work of the English school of painters in water colour deserves to be studied as a valuable expression of national character. We may even go farther -and admit that on the whole it has reflected that character on its worthier side. But are we justified on these grounds in calling water colour painting a peculiarly English art ? We have a literature of which as a nation we have a right to be proud ; and this literature has on the whole reflected the character of the nation on its better side. But most of us would shrink from calling the art of writing in prose or verse ” a peculiarly English art.”

If, however, we fix our attention merely on external matters—on questions of material and of the processes employed—we may easily find ourselves driven to put forward some such absurd pretensions. If we lose sight of the inner core of meaning which gives all art its value, and if we imagine that art is merely an affair of processes and recipes, we are likely to feel called upon to prove that English artists either invented the process of water colour painting, or that they introduced new materials or new methods of working ; otherwise we shall find ourselves unable to justify their existence. And this seems to have been the dilemma into which an intelligent and patriotic writer like the late Mr Samuel Redgrave was driven when he was called upon to write the introductions to the ” Descriptive Catalogue of the Historical Collection of Water Colour Paintings in the South Kensington Museum,” a work prepared and published under the authority of the Council of Education. Actuated no doubt by the worthiest patriotic motives, Mr Redgrave has taken the greatest pains to show that the English artists created a “distinct branch of art,” that they introduced a ” peculiar change in the use of their materials,” and that their method of work was ” perfectly distinct from the manner of the Dutch, the French, or the Italian ” artists. As Mr Redgrave was the official entrusted with the task of forming the nucleus of the historical collection of water colours at South Kensington, his pronouncements have been regarded as authoritative ; and the subsequent publications of the Science and Art Department have always insisted upon Mr Redgrave’s points in a way that would lead the reader to suppose that the glory of the English school depends mainly upon the credit of the invention of some new technical processes. If that be so, the glory of the English school of water colour must pass away, for the evidence goes to show that the English artists neither invented water colour painting nor introduced any new methods of working. In the readily accessible collection of drawings in the Print Room of the British Museum there are water colour drawings by Albert Dürer (1471-1528), Baroccio (1528-1612), Rubens (1577-1640), Jordeans (1593-1678), Van Dyck (1599-1641), Adrian van Ostade (1610-1685), and Van Huysum (1682-1749), which show that Continental artists were familiar, not only with the medium, but with its full resources, some time before an English school of painters had come into existence.

In Durer’s landscape drawing, The View of the Castle of Trent, the local colours are attacked directly, the modelling being subsequently worked into them by the employment of darker tints of the same colour or by other colours. Rubens’s splendid portrait in water colour of Sir Theodore Mayerne combines the use of transparent and opaque colour. The effect produced is fully as rich and powerful in colour and tone as that of any of the same painter’s portraits in oil. The water colour by Jacob Jordeâns of Pan at Supper with a Family of Peasants is also carried as far as an oil painting could be. It is worked almost entirely in transparent colours, a few corrections and accents being added in body colour, and the darker touches in the shadows appear to have received an addition of gum to give them lustre. The majority of studies of tulips, cornflowers, nasturtiums, roses, and other flowers worked with consummate skill by Jan van Huysum are done entirely in pure trans-parent colour, the gradations being given with the utmost directness.

But if we reject the South Kensington hypothesis that modern water colour art was gradually invented by the English artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we shall have to explain how it was that so many of the earlier works were produced in a restricted range of colour. If we place in chronological order the works of Cozens, Girtin, Turner, Barret, Varley, Copley Fielding, Linnell, and Palmer, we find that the later works in the series are coloured more brightly and variously than the earlier. If the restricted colour scheme in which men like Cozens worked was not ” a matter of necessity in his day, common to all who practised in water colours,” as Roget, following Redgrave’s assertions, has declared, why was it that they did not make their drawings as polychromatic in effect as their successors ?

Now, there is no doubt that in a large number of the earlier drawings only a few colours were used. And this was not only the case with drawings intended solely for the use of the engravers, but even works painted for exhibition by men like Cozens, Dayes, Hearne, Girtin, and Turner were often painted with a very limited number of colours. But we must not assume that this was simply because a greater number of colours was not procurable, for there are drawings in the Print Room by William Pars, Francis Towne, William Reveley, and Alexander Cozens which show that the English artists even of the middle of the eighteenth century could obtain and use a large number of bright colours when they wanted to. So that when Dayes painted the two beautiful views of Keswick and Winder-mere (probably about 1800 or a few years earlier) now in the South Kensington collection, he was evidently not forced by material considerations to confine himself to the four or five colours he has actually used. As additional evidence we can quote the artist’s own words. During his lifetime (he was born in 1763 and died in 1804) he had published a book of “Instructions for Drawing and Colouring Landscapes ” in which he advised the beginner to get the following colours only—Indian ink, gamboge, raw sienna, lake or carmine, vermilion, burnt sienna, Indian red, and Vandyck brown, together with a decoction of bistre or wood-soot to tone with. ” One great inconvenience the student labours under,’ he writes, “arises from the too great quantity of colours put into his hands ; an evil so encouraged by the drawing-master and colourman, that it is not uncommon to give two or three dozen colours in a box, a thing quite unnecessary.” And in a foot-note he tells us that ” Wilson, on being told by a person that he had found out a new colour, said he was sorry for it, as there were too many already.” This shows that artists are capable of adopting a restricted range of colour from purely aesthetic considerations. So that we seem justified in assuming that the sober dignity of John Cozen’s drawings was not simply the result of a defective supply of materials, and that when Girtin, Turner, and Cotman painted in a restrained scheme of colour, they did so because they chose it and knew it to be beautiful, and not because they had not the means to be as polychromatic as the early Victorians had they so wished it.

It may now be evident that under what may seem a merely academical question of origins Iies a problem of the deepest importance. The South Kensington point of view leaves out of consideration the value of the artist’s personality. It regards the succession of artists and their works as so many steps towards the perfecting of an industrial invention. As Stephenson’s ” Puffing Billy ” gave way to engines of a later pattern, so the primitive art of Cozens and Girtin is supposed to have given way to the better developed art of their successors. The history of art thus becomes the record of the lapsed patents which have been taken out by a long list of workmen ; and the latest production is necessarily the most valuable, as it sums up in its triumphant complexity all the tentative variations of its ancestors of which time and experience had approved. Such methods of criticism applied to literature would show us Shakespeare’s works as the stepping-stones to the “higher ” works of Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, and Webster, or as the ” primitive works” from which the “fully developed” art of our Hall Caine and Arthur Jones has emerged triumphant.

We have then to ask, what standard should be applied to works of art? Are we, as Mr Redgrave does, to accept every change with the blind assurance that it is really—whatever it may seem to our better judgment–only a fresh step towards perfection ? Are ” change and “progress” merely synonymous terms? Mr Redgrave loves to talk of ” the progress of change.” Every change to him is an “advance,” and it becomes quite touching to watch the ” growing art ” constantly taking on ” a new and higher character.” At length “the struggle of progress ” culminates in the works of those artists who were fortunate enough to be producing at the moment his book had to go to press.

It is true that Mr Redgrave was an evolutionist of a somewhat old-fashioned type. But his confusion between matters of fact and standards of value is still all too common. No one can study the opinions that intelligent people form upon the merits of English water colours without being struck by the prevalence of the prejudice that the “advance ” or “progress ” of the art is to be gauged by the number and gaudiness of the colours used. Such a presupposition must of necessity blind us to all the higher beauties of the art. Under its influence we may even be induced to mistake its most consummate achievements for primitive experiments.

The following chapters make some attempt to combat such shallow and materialistic interpretations, and the importance of the personality behind a work of art has been insisted on.