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Writ in Water

Before there was photography there was watercolor, a demanding medium that British artists mastered while documenting life and landscape at home and abroad.

Thomas Girtin, Durham Cathedral and Castle.

Thomas Girtin, Durham Cathedral and Castle.

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The most portable of paints created centuries of enduring views. Since the 18th century, watercolorists have packed up their brushes and worked near and far, recreating everything from their local landscapes to battlefield encampments to the world’s most iconic monuments and ruins. The British have always been noted for their devotion to the medium and have produced some of its finest artists. Of course, the top artists—the Turners and Constables and Gainsboroughs, command top prices at auction—but there are others who are now seeing increased global interest, particularly American interest. “I think the market for British watercolors has changed enormously in the past 5 to 10 years,” says Harriet Drummond, international head of British Art on Paper at Christie’s. “It’s increasingly international.”

One reason is that in 2009, the auction houses cleverly began putting their finest examples of British works on paper into their important Old Masters sales, exposing top collectors to British works. The result has been crossover buyers from the United States, Europe, Russia and Asia.

Watercolorists were the photographers of their day, using their skill with brush and pencil to capture their commissions. In the early days of watercolor painting, in the 1740s, it was the likes of Paul and Thomas Sandby, brothers who were trained as military draftsmen and were then sent off to paint campaigns or topographical views of the Scottish Highlands. In 1760 Paul Sandby moved to London, and thanks to a recommendation of his friend Thomas Gainsborough, began receiving commissions from aristocrats to depict their country homes. Painting “gentlemen’s seats,” would become a major occupation of watercolororists. One of the founding members of the Royal Academy, Paul Sandby always championed watercolor as an equal to oil.

William Payne was another artist who trained as a draftsman and topographer and integrated the two as a skilled watercolorist. He was a young friend of Sandby, and the older artist greatly encouraged his career. During Britain’s wars with the United States, France and Spain, Payne was sent as a government draftsman to Plymouth, a key port of defense. Payne was a natural historiographer, and his watercolors from this time are snapshots of late 18th-century life and landscape. Known for his Plymouth scenes, as well as views of Wales and England’s West Country, all done in his signature “Payne grey,” Payne would also take his talents to London.

This month, there’s an opportunity to see 60 Payne watercolors from private collections at the British Antiques Dealers Association (BADA) Fair’s loan exhibition, up in London March 13–19. “William Payne (1760–1830) Topographer and Artist of the Picturesque” is curated by London watercolor specialist John Spink, who sourced the paintings from the collections he has helped build over the last 40 years. Spink also took the exhibition one step further by spending months with his wife on foot, by car and by boat, seeking out the precise sites where Payne painted. In the exhibition and in the comprehensive, beautifully presented catalogue, photographs of those contemporary views are juxtaposed with the 18th-century paintings. The scholarship in the catalogue is written by Payne expert David Japes. Spink will also have a booth at the fair and at Art Antiques London in June.

The desire to own favorite topographic vistas also saw landed gentry bringing a watercolorist with them on the Grand Tour. William Beckford, an eccentric millionaire collector and author of the fantastic novel Vathek, packed up his elderly tutor, his doctor, a musician and the artist John Robert Cozens before embarking in three horse-drawn coaches across the Continent—twice. Considered the father of English watercolors, Cozens made topographic painting romantic, creating watercolors that are engulfing experiences. “This medium transforms itself in the hands of these artists,” says Mark Griffith Jones the deputy director of Sotheby’s British Watercolors and Drawings, of Cozens and J.M.W. Turner. “They paint weather and atmospheric effects. Beckford would be wanting a view and Cozens is focused on the storm coming across the lake.” Sotheby’s achieved a world record for Cozens when they sold The Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo in July 2012 for £2.39 million against a £500,000–700,000 estimate.

Cozens died at age 40 after a bout of mental illness. In his final days he lived with his physician, Dr. Thomas Munro, who had an impressive collection of Cozens’ and Gainsborough’s works. In the 1790s Munro decided to open his home to young artists so they could study his collection—that would be the next generation, which included noted watercolorists Thomas Girton and J.M.W. Turner.

Heavily influenced by Cozens, Girton and Turner created their own version of English Romanticism in watercolor. Born in the same year, 1775, the artists were friends and colleagues, but the incredibly talented Girton was yet another who would die young, in his late 20s. Turner famously said, “If Tom Girton had survived, I would have starved.” Of course, Turner went on to be one of Britain’s greatest artists. Today his works command millions; the record for one of his watercolors at auction stands at £5.8 million, set when Christie’s London sold The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise in 2006. It was Turner, too, who marked a turning point for the market in 2001 when one of his watercolors was the first ever to cross the £1 million mark when it sold at Sotheby’s London. Since, we’ve seen record-making watercolors by John Frederick Lewis, Samuel Palmer, John Constable and John Martin—whose dramatic stormscapes were recently the subject of an exhibition at Tate Britain—go for £300,000 into the millions.

Another highly priced watercolorist, who sadly only made it to age 26, is Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–28), an English talent who moved to France, where he trained formally and painted during his short life. Paul Mellon was a keen collector of Bonington’s works, and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, which he endowed, has the largest collection in North America. In July 2012, Sotheby’s London sold a tiny jewel of a Venetian view by Bonington for £175,000 against a £50,000–75,000 estimate. Look for Bonington’s works on view this spring when the Wallace Collection in London mounts “The Discovery of Paris: Watercolors by Early Nineteenth-Century British Artists.”

Officially, the “golden age” of British watercolors, 1750–1851, ends with Turner’s death, but other artists who are now popular, were still working in the medium. Edward Lear was probably the best traveled watercolorist of any era; he didn’t do the standard continental Grand Tour but trotted the entire globe in the 1860s. Guy Peppiatt, a London drawings dealer who steadily deals in Lear, says he’s an artist whose attraction to buyers today is much the same as in Lear’s day. “It’s easy to like him. He appeals to the non-watercolor specialist and all different kinds of people because he painted so widely,” says Peppiatt, who notes that an exhibition marking Lear’s 200th birthday at the Ashmolean Museum in 2012 has helped the artist’s market value. Christie’s New York had two Lear views in its January sale that went for $57,000 and $40,000, both against $25,000–35,000 estimates. It worth noting how subject matter affects Lear’s value—his views from the Holy Land, Sri Lanka, Greece and Turkey fetch more, as fewer British artists travelled to these destinations than to France and Italy. Peppiatt will also show Lear’s works at the BADA fair this month and at Art Antiques London in June.

Another artist that auction specialists and dealers say has become tremendously popular in the American market is William Blake, the mystical and fantastical poet, painter and printmaker. This winter, two of Blake’s important figurative watercolors were for sale in New York: the first, The Gambols of Ghosts According with their Affections Previous to the Final Judgment carried a $400,000–600,000 estimate with Sotheby’s and sold for $722,500. In the galleries of Master Drawings Week, London British drawings specialist Lowell Libson was offering a very important, recently discovered poetic Blake watercolor, Parental Affection, from the early 1790s; it might also be on view with him at Maastricht, alongside watercolor landscapes by Cozens, Gainsborough, David Cox and Francis Towne.

Finally, when considering the centuries-old tradition of British watercolors, it’s nice to fast-forward to the present with the work of a contemporary painter who maintains the traditional spirit of the medium. Hugh Buchanan (b. 1958) is a Scottish artist whose subjects are the same as his earliest watercolorist forebears—grand country homes. However, Buchanan’s landscape is not the exteriors of these historic spaces, but the interiors. The artist catches circles of stairwells, light shafts in libraries and generations of dusty picture galleries with a soft dilution that spells itself out on large canvases. Buchanan has won numerous awards and painted watercolors of Balmoral Castle on commission from Prince Charles. Sadly, Buchanan’s popular work only seems to come up for sale every two years, when the Francis Kyle Gallery in London mounts an exhibition. This past winter it was showing “The Lineaments of Light,” studies of rooms in Versailles, the Louvre and homes in Scotland and England. But when a Buchanan exhibition opens, one must act fast, as his works sell out in a hurry.

This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Writ in Water”

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: February 2013

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