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Developments in English Watercolour Techniques

Some of the leading watercolourists of 19th century England feature in the Bailey collection. Approaches to watercolour changed greatly in the course of this century. The early 19th century work of J. M. W. Turner [1517] and Peter de Wint [1516, 1538, 1754] embodies the older approach towards this medium, while the work of Myles Birket Foster [1524, 1537] and Albert Goodwin [1518, 1757, 1758] typifies a younger generation. In the earlier period, the transparency of watercolour paint was emphasised, and the contrast between watercolour pictures and paintings was highlighted by an emphasis upon the spontaneity and openness of watercolour images. Thus, de Wint or Turner see watercolour as a kind of fluid, lightly-tinted sketch.

At mid-century, however, the art critic John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite painters (so-called because they claimed to be reviving painting styles of the 15th century) began to argue for the virtue of pictures which were highly detailed, minutely painted and richly coloured. Under the influence of this style of painting, English watercolourists began to work in a very different way. They now used a good deal of 'body colour' (that is, opaque rather than translucent pigment), and they produced far more detailed and brilliantly-coloured pictures. Both Birket Foster and Goodwin are fine examples of this trend. Both watercolourists worked initially with Pre-Raphaelite painters and Goodwin spent some time travelling in Europe with Ruskin, absorbing his ideals. It is significant also that Birket Foster, like a number of the mid-century watercolourists, began his artistic career as an illustrator, producing highly detailed wood engravings for book publishers. The meticulousness of this craft remains in his watercolour images.

'Improving' on the Life of the Countryside

The 'Pre-Raphaelite' watercolour style was immensely popular throughout the 1860s, and Birket Foster's work, in particular, was a huge commercial success. From the late 70s onwards, however, there was a revival of interest in subtler and more fluid watercolour styles, and Peter de Wint was among those those work became greatly sought after. Whichever the style employed, however, the subject-matter of these pictures was equally arcadian. Landscape watercolours typically depicted a rural world of great charm and peacefulness, a world entirely devoid of agricultural machinery, unwholesome vistas or poor and ragged labourers. One contemporary journal commented acerbically of Birket Foster's work:

"No one who knows what English men and English homes are truly like, will believe in Mr Birket Foster's cottages and cottagers".
(Spectator, 18/12/1880)

But like Peter de Wint and so many other 'documenters' of the countryside, Birket Foster idealised the rural life and appealed to the public's nostalgia for a lost world of beauty and innocence.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, Swiss Lake (Lake Nemi), 1844, watercolour, body colour

Myles Birket Foster, Girl with a Pitcher, watercolour, body colours

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