Friday, September 04, 2015

Two watercolour exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

While I was in Cambridge recently I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum to see two exhibitions:
Below you will find a review of the first exhibition - and review of Ruskin's Turners follows tomorrow.

I highly recommend both exhibitions to anybody who enjoys watercolour paintings - particularly those of the past Masters - and who can get to Cambridge before they close.
Admission is free to both exhibitions.

Venice, storm at sunset, 1840, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851),
watercolour and bodycolour with pen and red ink and scratching out on paper, 222mm x 320mm
All images copyright Fitzwilliam Museum

This was painted during Turner's third visit to Venice.
During the latter half of August 1840 he apparently produced 100+ colour sketches on loose sheets
and in sketchbooks.  He used his untrimmed thumbnail as a painting tool and
used this to scratch the paper surface of the painting to produce highlights.
In my view, it's when I visit exhibitions like this that I appreciate (all over again) what is possible using transparent watercolour paints and/or opaque body colour. At the same time I lament how little we see of such diversity and talent today when people think it's OK to have exhibitions of ostensibly watercolour paintings - which are actually stuffed full of paintings in acrylic!  (I do wish the acrylic painters would form their own society and leave the watercolour societies to more traditional media!)

Come to this exhibition to see what can be achieved with watercolour and how impressive the painters of the past were when they used it!

Shakespeare Cliff, Dover, c.1825, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), 
watercolour on paper, 181mm x 245mm
Unsurprisingly, this is a painting which has been exhibited more than once!
I also recommend the catalogue for the first exhibition as it's informative about the techniques employed by the different artists. (I have to say the Fitzwilliam Online Shop looks as it's well overdue for an upgrade!). The cover uses the above painting by Turner.

It's been a very real disappointment while writing this post to find that the Fitzwilliam website does not make it easy to share the watercolours in its collection online. One could be forgiven for thinking that there has been no will to digitise the collection (or maybe just a very poor database and/or search engine of what has been digitised?). The end result is that the paintings which are most difficult to exhibit are also the most difficult to find!

There should be no doubts that very many people appreciate watercolour paintings - this is an exhibition with a lot of visitors - however:
  • There is no virtual exhibition of the exhibition or selected highlights for those unable to visit
  • You have to know to search via their app - which can be found at
  • When you search the paintings in the collection, it's the oil paintings which typically come up for specific artists and not the watercolours.  However if you search under drawings rather than paintings I then found that the watercolours begin to appear.
  • Initial impressions were that important painters in watercolour appear to be completely ignored or are very difficult to find - until the advanced search function is used - or the special app.
However having raised the issue with the Fitzwilliam, I'm assured they are very much aware of the issues with the website and the share function and the impressions that it gives - and that these are currently being addressed by the Museum. Which is a relief as hopefully that means things can only improve!

My experience interrogating the website for links to paintings in the exhibition means I've endeavoured to share some of the links to works in the collection - and online - in my review below.  Where it says "more watercolours by...." that means these are not necessarily in the show but are part of the collection.

Note also that the Museum is piloting a new approach to Photography in the Galleries and is allowing people to take photographs of paintings hung in the permanent collection - although sadly not those in the temporary exhibitions. Let's hope this new approach will also soon be reflected in better digitisation and access to the permanent collection and a more enlightened approach to the use of low resolution images of those artists whose work left copyright many moons ago.

Watercolour: Elements of Nature

The Fitzwilliam Museum has a very fine collection of watercolour paintings. This exhibition:
  • demonstrates how the medium has been handled by different painters working in different traditions and in different countries. 
  • highlights the individual ways of working and 
  • where possible also comments on the paints and paper used by the artist.
The exhibition is organised by themes and sections - these are:

Miniature Painting

This includes four works by Nicholas Hilliard.  See Watercolour miniatures by Hilliard - typically on vellum stuck to a card (often a playing card)

Flower Painting

This has four excellent examples of large watercolour paintings of flowers by Pierre-Joseph Redouté

Landscapes in Britain's "Golden Age"

This comments on how watercolours developed in the 18th and 19th centuries beyond the purely topographical. They became more interesting as artists began to be able to sketch and paint in the landscape due to changes in paint technology which made watercolour paints easier to use and transport. 

Importantly this section highlighted some old favourites alongside other painters I'm less familiar with - such as Cornelius Varley and Peter de Wint and others.
Yorkshire fells, c.1812, Peter De Wint (1784-1849)
watercolour with gum arabic over traces of graphite on paper, 363mm x 565mm

De Wint was influenced by the work of Thomas Girtin
He generally used a heavier weight paper by Thomas Creswick (c.1774-1840) or Whatman
It includes landscape paintings by all the 'C's - ConstableCotman, CoxCozens (A) and Cozens  (JR) and a lot of paintings of water in the sea and the sky by Turner! (see above for examples); views of uplands by Girtin and visionary paintings by Palmer.
Postwick Grove, c.1835-1840, John Sell Cotman (1782-1842),
watercolour on paper, 178mm x 272mm
The Magic Apple Tree, c.1830, Samuel Palmer (1805-1881)
pen and indian ink, watercolour, in places mixed with a gum-like medium, on paper, 349mm x 273mm

This is one from his 'visionary' period when he was based in Shoreham in Kent.

There's a long explanation about this famous painting on the website (link embedded in title)"in the more finished works, like the Magic Apple Tree, he invests nature with a visionary significance 
instead of attempting to represent landscape as such"

Artists' materials

This focuses on the materials used to develop paints. Dry pigments - mostly derived from minerals, plants, natural earths and insects are on display along with the method of using mussel shells to mix them with a binder such as gum arabic.

The books of recipes for making small hard cakes of paint (introduced in 1781) and an early plein air painting box is on display.

The exhibition is notable for commenting on materials in relation to individual paintings in both the exhibition and catalogue. Would that more exhibitions did the same!

Watercolour and the Amateur

The change in technology for producing paints and the growing popularity of landscape paintings in the 19th century prompted a boom in sketching.

Included in the exhibition are manuals for "how to sketch" including A Treatise on Landscape Painting and Effects in Water Colours" by David Cox who was working art tutor for much of his professional career. (Note: You can read an archived copy online - I downloaded the pdf copy)

Watercolour Liberated 

This part of the exhibition focuses on how painters reacted to the development of watercolour painting to include a high degree of finish during the course of the 19th century. Consequently it focuses on the more informal, sketchy and looser applications of watercolours by painters such as Cezanne and PissaroSinger Sargent and Whistler; and Steer and Nash
  • one of my favourites is Arthur Melville (1858–1904) who is a brilliant watercolourist and influenced the Glasgow Boys!  I was really pleased to see a painting of The Alhambra at Granada but it's such a pity the image is not online - he's well outside the limitations of copyright.  Interestingly its colour palette and the absence of blue skies makes it resemble a painting of Edinburgh Rock more than Granada!
Giudecca, ?1913, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
watercolour over graphite on paper, 305mm x 457mm

Sargent often painted his watercolours while sat in a gondola. This particular view is well away from the more popular sights in Venice and has been identified as the Rio delle Covertite on the Island of Giudecca
There are two other rather nice paintings by Singer Sargent of a fountain and boats on Majorca - in the show
Grey and Silver, North Sea, c.1884, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)
watercolour on paper, 165mm x 268mm

Whistler was convinced that it was possible to convey atmosphere using a very limited colour palette and did so in watercolours just as much as he did in oils
"a bit of Antwerp blue, an' white and' black's all you want; and paint thin"

Here are links to their works in the permanent collection:
Still life flowers in a jar, ?1885-1880, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
watercolour and graphite on white paper, 466mm x 300mm

There's also a land scape by Cezanne in the exhibition. Neither are his best work.

In terms of British watercolour painters, the only living artist represented is Barbara Rae with her painting of Red Hill. It's a pity there aren't more paintings by contemporary heavyweights.

The two (dead) British painters most represented in the last section are 

Other reviews of this exhibition

Below are the reviews by:

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

St Paul's Studios Update

An update on my post last week St. Paul's Studios on the Talgarth Road.

St Paul's Studios being sold 'off plan'
(right click and open in a new tab to see a larger image)
My post on Facebook drew this comment from Dennis Spicer - which answers some of the comments about noise.
I used to live very near these and got to know Alan Day when he came to my life drawing classes at Hammersmith Adult Education Centre. He was a designer and lived in the third one from the left in the photo. He had restored the front room as it would have been for a Victorian gentleman artist, including a bookshelf with a full set of The Yellow Book, the hallway was similarly restored and the other ground floor room was his bedroom,and the large studio room was his design studio. He had a modern steel and chrome style kitchen in the basement and the room next to it was his sister's bedroom. I remember the lack of noise in the house, due to a kind of Victorian double glazing system.During the summer break from the Adult Education classes he invited some of us to have a life drawing session in the studio, probably the last time the studio was used for its original purpose! He would often host visiting parties from both the Victorian and Edwardian Societies and the front room was used as a film set on several occasions, notably both Merchant/ Ivory films A Room With A View and Howard's End. He sadly died some years ago and the contents were put up for auction. Have found two sites showing pictures of the interior as I remember them.
The studio at #3 in use as a studio
These are:
The latter contains lots of information about the artists' studios in the area, specifically:
It has two spacious ground floor studios and an exceptionally large studio on the first floor – 10.5 metres by 22.5 metres (35ft x 75ft), comfortably long enough for a cricket pitch.
  • An Arts & Craft Epicentre which references other purpose artists' studios built in the area
  • A House Portrait which contains a rather nice drawing of one of the studios by a chap called Liam Wales who is an architectuiral illustrator
  • The Studios’ First Sales Particulars - interesting to see the original layout unchanged by the occupants - and that the whole of the First Floor was seen as a studio space
  • and finally, it's interesting to see that rather famous people have also lusted after these studios - see Sir Roy Strong’s Dream Home (Sir Roy Strong is a former Director of the National Portrait Gallery and then the Victoria and Albert Museum)
By the way - do have a look at the paintings on Dennis Spicer's website - they're delightful!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize 2016: Call for Entries

The Call for Entries for the Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize 2016 has been published.

The Prize has two aims:
  • to encourage the very best creative representational painting and 
  • to promote the skill of draughtsmanship
It's a well regarded competition and one which looks good on a CV!

An exhibition of c. 100 works selected by the Panel of Judges will be held at the Mall Galleries between 7-13th March 2016 (10am - 5pm) followed by an exhibition at Guildford House Gallery in Surrey.

The deadline for entry is 5pm (17:00) on Wednesday 16th December 2015

Given that entry is now digital I'd very much encourage artists to at least submit a digital entry. the expenses of framing and getting the work to London are only incurred if your work gets through the initial judging.

It's also a particularly good competition for younger artists given there are two prizes which are limited to younger artists.

Lynn Painter-Stainers Prizewinners 2015 at the Mall Galleries
Having a good look at the paintings which won prizes in 2015

What's happened in the past?

It's worth looking at those selected and exhibited in previous years to make an assessment of the sort of art which has a good 'fit' with this competition.

You can see the artwork shortlisted for the Lynn Painter Stainers Prize on the website on the Past Winners page which includes images for all the competitions 2005-2015. This is the link to the 2015 Exhibition and prizewinners

In terms of my blog posts for the 2015 competition here are:

Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize 2016

More of the drawings and paintings selections for the Lynn Painter-Stainers 2015 Exhibition
at the Mall Galleries


This is one of the most prestigious art competitions in the UK. The prizes total £30,000 in value allocated as follows:

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Akash Bhatt wins Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015

The prizewinners in the 2015 Sunday Times Watercolour Competition were announced earlier today.

Winner of the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015£10,000 First Place
Blue Room by Akash Bhatt
Akash Bhatt RWS RBA has won the £10,000 First Prize for his latest painting of his mother - called Blue Room.

Over the years the artist has drawn and painted both his parents and developed a suite of work in doing so. His father passed on a few years ago but his mother continues to sit for him.

Akash Bhatt was born in Leicester and now lives in Wembley. He is a member of both the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of British Artists. His work can be regularly seen in the exhibitions of both societies.

Akash also won the London Lives competition in 2010 when his painting featured along the length of Blackfriars Bridge - and I wrote about his win on this blog

The second prize was won by Michael A E Williams for a painting called Land, Sea, Place.

I was unable to identify a painter called Michael Williams who painted using water-based paints when doing my selected artist post in the summer (see below). However the Sunday Times Colour Magazine - which has an article about the prizewinners - indicates that Michael Williams lives in Gloucestershire but has had a very long association with Wales - and that this painting is of the island of Skomer.  As a result, with a few more clues, I've now found his website - and these are some of his recent paintings.

Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015 - Second Place
Land, Sea, Place by Michael Williams
watercolour, 74 x 104cms
With those clues I also found two websites with more of his paintings - this gallery site and the Bay Art website which contained this very informative quote about his paintings
Williams is not one to take advantage of water colours propensity for ambivalence. He avoids that wet, blotter-like seepage and slippage, which can easily facilitate atmosphere, approximation and ambiguity. Rather, he rigorously manipulates the challenges of this medium by accumulating discrete marks to gradually build a unifying structure, (he never uses white pigment as a means of reversal or correction). This involves a balancing act between the surface demands of rhythm, pattern and detail (the known) and the desire to actualize light and space (the transcendent)? Consequently, there is a strong sense of particularity in these works that affirms both substance and fragility.
The Smith & Williamson Cityscape Prize (£1,500) was won by Leo Davey for a very effective painting of the view of a canal under a bridge and associated reflections in the water.

As I indicated in the selected artists post Leo has been...
selected for this exhibition in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Try taking a look at his page of watercolour paintings on his website
Winner of the The Smith & Williamson Cityscape Prize
Drip... Regents Canal, London  by Leo Davey
You can see exhibition for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition at three venues on the following dates:
followed by the Smith & Williamson Tour to
I'll be writing a review of the exhibition once it's open.

Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015

You can read more about this year's competition in my previous posts:

    Saturday, August 29, 2015

    Hesketh Hubbard Exhibition - not enough life drawing!

    I went to see the Annual Exhibition by the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society on Thursday. The Society is London's largest life drawing society

    The Portrait (£175) by John Harper Sutton
    The exhibition is now finished.  This post highlights:
    • my thoughts on the exhibition - and a suggestion for the future
    • the prizewinners 
    • work by artists I liked
    • the artist who had the most visitors - due entirely to positive self-promotion.  It's a learning lesson for very many artists!
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