British Watercolors from the Permanent Collection


British Watercolors from the Permanent Collection


January 7-May 4, 2014


In Europe, the use of watercolor reaches as far back as medieval times, and during the Renaissance it was regularly employed by some of the era’s most prominent artists—Dürer’s flora and fauna studies come immediately to mind. But the medium blossomed as an autonomous approach only in the middle years of the eighteenth century. It became particularly prevalent in England, where the acceptance of landscape as an appropriate subject matter, coupled with the widespread availability of readily portable cakes of water-soluble pigment, which allowed artists to work sur le motif, led to a tradition that, by the early years of the nineteenth century, grew to rival oil painting in beauty and desirability.

This exhibition celebrates the so-called Golden Age of British watercolors, a period spanning roughly from 1750 to 1850 in which the medium reached its pinnacle in the hands of a remarkably diverse group of artists. The earliest practitioners, represented here most clearly by Francis Towne and James Miller, followed a purely topographical tradition in which site-specific motifs were first sketched in pencil and only later, perhaps even in the studio, fleshed out in color. Later artists—John Varley, David Cox, and Peter De Wint, for example—discarded this linear approach in favor of exploring the more painterly qualities of watercolor, often in an effort to capture the poetic aspects of their subjects. The shift in attitude was marked in 1804 by the founding of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, organized as an alternative to the Royal Academy of Arts, at the time the only viable venue for exhibition but not open to membership for artists who desired to show only drawings, as watercolors were then categorized. The Society’s annual exhibitions, which drew large crowds throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, allowed the public, and the critics, to experience the medium in a favorable light, and introduced to younger generations of artists the expressive possibilities of watercolor.

Through the efforts of many of the artists represented here, painting with watercolor became accepted as an approach every bit as serious as sculpture or painting in oil. And it was an accomplishment that was considered to be uniquely British. William Henry Pyne, one of the founders of the Society of Painters in Water Colours and an early advocate in the press, wrote in an 1823 review: “With reference to Water Colour Painting, we have to speak of a new art, originating with the English, and perfected within the age whence it began.”


Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University


These images are posted publicly for non-profit educational uses, excluding printed publication. Other uses are not permitted.

Items in the British Watercolors from the Permanent Collection Collection

Wooded Landscape with House and Figure
Displaying a prodigious talent at an early age—he regularly skipped school to draw in the countryside—Thomas Gainsborough was sent off to London in 1740, at the age of 13, to study with the French engraver Hubert-François Gravelot. Around the…

The North East View of Malden Church, Surrey
Not a great deal has come to light about the life of James Miller. He was active from about 1763 until his death in 1805, and was best known to the public between 1773 and 1791, when he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and the Society of…

On the River near Bath
Born and raised in the town of Isleworth, just west of London, Francis Towne initially trained as a coach painter. Although he soon turned to painting on canvas, and eventually studied at the St. Martin’s Lane Academy, Towne stayed with the…

Lodore Falls
Art was a second profession for Thomas Sunderland. A pioneer of the ore industry in northern England, he lived on the edge of the Lake District, in the Cumbrian Mountains along the west coast just south of Scotland. The region’s scenic beauty…

Landscape with Figures Approaching Mansion House
William Payne’s first career was as a draughtsman, making maps and other strategic documents for the Board of Ordnance in the Tower of London. He was also a fine artist, successfully exhibiting his watercolors from the age of 16. By 1790, he had…

River Scene with an Artist Sketching, Dovedale, Derbyshire
Very little is known about the early life of James Bourne. He was born and raised in the small town of Dalby, Lincolnshire, not far from the North Sea coast of England. He was living in London as early as 1789. A year later he traveled to Manchester,…

Portico of a Macau House
George Chinnery entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1792, and upon the completion of his training four years later he moved to Ireland, where he found success as a portrait painter. He returned to London in 1801, but within a year, evidently in an…

Knaresborough Castle
John Varley first studied with Joseph Charles Barrow, attending his evening drawing classes as early as 1793. A more significant aspect of his training came through his participation in the “academy’ run by Dr. Thomas Monro, a noted physician and…