Watercolour in Britain: Sheffield : review

A touring exhibition which started in Norwich and currently at Millenium Galleries Sheffield this Tate Gallery touring show comes with a specific tagline i.e. ‘Part of the Great British Arts Debate’.

Now, if you are not aware this Great British Art Debate commenced during the first wave of Arts Council ‘restructuring’ about two years ago. This seems to be a spin off from that ‘debate’. At the time that debate really amounted to no more than carefully chosen individuals talking in a ‘closed shop’ about how best to redeploy funding in face of cuts by the then blah

Any attempt to genuinely ‘widen’ debate and participation is to be welcomed. That the Tate should choose to wrap a watercolour exhibition in such terms says more about current arts politics than any real ‘debate’ out in the Shires. This exhibition highlights the deep uncertainty and failure of contemporary art to address notions of both identity and place and technique properly. It raises more questions than answers but not in the way intended.

The exhibition contains a great deal of stunning work and no-one can complain about seeing (even if in very low light to preserve the fragile colours) a collection that shows Turner, Blake, Sutherland, Burra and Offili in the same space. The Millenium Galleries, to their credit, are showing both local war artists and local ‘amateur/professional’ painters work alongside the ‘masters’. However all of this is constantly being drawn into the shaping argument that a leaflet posits thus:

“Watercolour paintings have become shorthand for a comforting, conservative world view, rooted in the English countryside and largely rejected by the contemporary art scene. It wasn’t always so”

This statement has no author. It is presented as essentially true when it is, of course, contestable. It is illustrated by Burra’s ‘Soldiers at Rye’ which is in the exhibition (see illustration above). Again our anonymous author cannot help but shackle a political point to it –

“”..is no portrayal of a pastoral idyll”

before drawing a comparison to oil painting which is just plain silly.

The comments also include a statement that this exhibition illustrates a ‘remarkable diversity’ and also asks ‘where next’.

This is, I presume, continued in the exhibition catalogue which I did not buy for the simple reason that the interesting local artists and the work illustrated did not reflect what shown in Sheffield. It appears that if one wants to see the David Jones and John Piper work shown in the Tate publication one has to travel to Tate Britain next year.

The exhibition addresses two fundamentals of the watercolour tradition ‘sense of place’ and ‘technique’ and tries to map them to a contemporary notion of ‘diversity’.

Watercolour paintings have become shorthand for a comforting, conservative world view, rooted in the English countryside

‘Shorthand’ is an unsatisfactory term based on a shallow perception of the tradition. ‘Shorthand’ suggests watercolour painting is somehow inferior to the ‘easel painting’ tradition and involves an almost throwaway sense of gesture usually ‘en plain air’. Anyone with a slight knowledge of the painstaking care that went into a Cotman or Turner can already see there a problem of some mis-aligned value systems here.

Instead of starting with the ‘tradition’ the commentator is explaining the tradition backwards with a rather ‘secondhand’ shorthand of their own. The suggestion they make is that watercolour is merely an amateur’s playground and the contemporary refuge of the conservative artist only. This smacks of the contemporary arts graduate view of art history and technique based on little real comprehension of its true history or creation.

i.e. in short – Watercolour + Landscape = a moribund ‘white male’ tradition.

This notion is so embedded that the whole last part of the exhibition is set up as a failed retort to this assumption which instead of making one applaud the ‘beyond’ as ‘groundbreaking’ simply reinforces that there has been a break in both technique and value system which leaves no ‘beyond’ – simply a sense of closure of that particular tradition.

If the instructional videos and cases of ‘this is how you do it’ sketches and paintings littered around the show inspire one person to try the technique that is fine. However the examples used were illustrative in the manner of the conservative tradition the exhibition is supposedly challenging. Instead of inspiring true engagement it suggests an administrative dumbing down, reflected again in the noble but ill advised attempt to show and sell local work at the exhibitions end. It would have been far better to have a decent contemporary artist showing the technique ‘live’ and ‘signpost’ people to good watercolour artists in the community or have their work for sale in the ubiquitous ‘shop’ than hang a frankly weak bunch of works next to William Blake which is doing neither party much good in comparison.

Because the Millenium contains an excellent Ruskin museum (all be it small) there were a couple of Ruskins and a large scale although slightly mad Burne Jones (a similar problem to most of the Burras being evident where scale and surreal subject matter outweigh a lumpiness and lack of touch in the works). Watercolour is a light and spontaneous medium which gets bogged down into sticky gouache when over-worked. Having said that a single ‘constructed’ Burra landscape retained that effervescance.

The exhibition makes a very good fist of showing (albeit in a fragmented manner – i.e. Offili then Burra then Turner then Ruskin then Blake) some classic work in the medium. Nobody could walk away from the Cotman and not feel that they have seen an illustration of the very finest technique. It is almost as if one is in a hall of greats onto which a slightly amateur exhibition has encroached.

Now before the ‘post-modernists’ cry foul and contest any suggestion of a “hall of greats” or “artistic canon” let me be clear. I do not buy into the notion that certain works of greatness can be explained away by socio-marxist reductionisim or are part of a white male tradition that needs ‘re-examining’. The reason the predominant works in the exhibition are from white males is simple. Historically, the only people able to safely travel the countryside and have the independent means to do so thus creating the topographical tradition, were men and white men of independent means at that. There were as few farm labourer watercolourists (male or female) as there were poets because of a harsh bondage to land. Arguments about impediments to joining ‘tradition’ whilst valid do not change the available corpus of work we are left to examine.

So if one removes the ‘diversity’ framework and examines the work one finds a fairly consistent and challenging set of works created by white males over a two hundred year period. The historical ‘romanticisation’ of the ‘wilderness’ occurred in this time frame. When the anonymous PR person spouts about a ‘conservative’ tradition it is one built on socio-economic changes and predominantly male for a reason. Far more interesting would have been a ‘debate’ centred on notions of ‘sense of place’ not ‘diversity’ as both are loaded terms.

The ‘contemporary’ works undermine that tradition by both their subject matter and their technique, or lack thereof, and in my opinion this should have been divided into two shows maybe run concurrently.

Nowhere in the contemporary works do we see a similar level of technique displayed except maybe in the Blackadder (an illustrative painter whose work influenced a swathe of eighties illustrators). Other contemporary artists range from the slightly cack-handed (Offili) to the downright awful..Kapoor and Paolozzi or Houshiary. Indeed worst of all was a very contemporary bunch of splodges on paper by a ‘conceptual’ artist I didn’t even bother looking at. All used watercolour in varying ways, none successful, and none with an understanding of the technique itself. Rather we were in the post-modern’s favourite place i.e. “Irony Island”.

Were these works selected simply for their possible ‘diversity’ tick-boxing? Paolozzi not Peter Blake, Kapoor (not noted as a painter per se?) instead of Michael Andrews? The whole show fell between two stools in trying to concoct a ‘diverse’ and ‘contemporary’ ‘beyond’ that didn’t exist and in so doing it competely ignored a far deeper and questioning use of the ‘watercolour tradition’ that could have included Conrad Atkinson amongst others. That would have been a real debate. Instead we are left holding the bath whilst baby and bath-water both lost and the bath increasingly leaky as a container for ideas……

To that degree ‘Tradition and Beyond’ did reflect the current lack of confidence at the heart of arts organisations trying to hit targets in all areas..footfall, diversity, engagement and failing to concentrate on the matter at hand…..a word no longer politically acceptable above all others.


Quality is now so disparaged amongst academics and administrators that one is admonished for just mentioning the word. However all artists can be judged by that criteria if all could agree on a suitably diverse criteria to encompass works.

At present there is no such consensus and until there is we continue to drift through shows like this……like Turner strapped to the mast in a storm the water blurring our sense of vision….


Published by

Shaun Belcher

Contemporary art critic

4 thoughts on “Watercolour in Britain: Sheffield : review”

  1. Were you referring to Elizabeth Blackadder? If you were, I have to inform you that she is not an illustrator. She is a highly esteemed Scottish painter.

  2. Quite correct! Mea culpa. I confused the style with someone else but the work is very ‘illustrative’ in my opinion. Thankyou for correction will amend asap

  3. Greetings from Paris…

    Just wanted to alert you and your fine operation of my upcoming exhibition SCARED BUT FRESH at The Orange Dot Gallery (Tube: Russell Square), opening October 6.

    You can download the free poster (high res PDF): http://matthewrosestudio.blogspot.com/

    Couldn’t find the contact button (perhaps there is none)… Hope this isn’t spamish. – sincerely, Matthew

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *