The Royal Watercolour Society was founded in 1804 by artists who felt slighted by the Royal Academy. John Varley, a founder member, is known for his elegiac landscapes that followed sketching tours in Wales. They were not records of actual places. Nature was there to be ‘cooked’ in
It was in Varley’s house that William Blake drew his portrait of a flea – a portrait from his mind’s eye. A small group, the Ancients, gathered around the elderly sage. Among them was John Linnell. In 1824 he brought along the young Samuel Palmer. (Linnell was to be his father-in-law). Palmer was later to remark: 'It pleased God to send
I have recently become the honorary curator of the Society. Here I am offering a few footnotes to what can be seen on the web. Thumbnails have a purpose, but they don’t give you the smell of the originals, the stories, the characters, the intrigues. Some of today’s practitioners have roots that go back into this history, but it is a hidden history.
I opened a box of David Cox landscapes, and gasped at the freshness, the sparkling light – I could almost feel the breeze. Informal sketches are in line with the taste of our day, but in 1853, Cox, at almost 70 years of age, expressed dismay that his ‘roughness’ was misunderstood. For more than 200 years RWS members have been debating how closely aligned they should be with contemporary art. Palmer was no realist. What appalled him was the materialism of modern life – farmland carved up by the railways, cities choked with smog. Cox – he had taken lessons with Varley – seemed happier, sketching the weather and the day-to-day goings on of his
Watercolour has not always been Panama hats and cucumber sandwiches. From the start, rival societies sprang up, with splits and furious resignations. To this day you cannot be a member of both the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. The longest-serving RWS president, Sir John Gilbert, well-known as a prolific illustrator for the Illustrated London News, became a painter of figures in the manner of Rubens. His
The impressionists supplied the fresh air to kill off all that stuffiness. The loose handling of Arthur Melville now looks entirely ‘
Samuel Prout was famed for his architectural studies. In his Hints on Light and Shadow of
Occasionally exhibitions based on collections spring surprises. Last year, at the Cotman exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery, I saw his studies of Dutch seventeenth-century pikemen – all in unexpectedly loud
Leafing through a leisure-painting magazine today you might think that
Today there are traces of the past in the current membership: a topographical tendency with Liz Butler’s jewel-like portraits of allotments, and Neil Pittaway’s expedition records. For painterly vitality and atmosphere, I would pick Julie Held’s In the Night III, the dense purple evoking the world of Emil Nolde, with the candles as symbols of life and loss. There are also one or two artists of a spiritual bent, but as far as I know none with Varley’s expertise in astrology.
James Faure Walker, Honorary Curator, Royal Watercolour Society