Exhibtion Review: Watercolour at the Tate

The Tate Britain’s Watercolour exhibition is a bold show that encompasses the entire history of watercolour painting; from the 12th century maps to contemporary works. The exhibition charts how this uniquely versatile material has been used over the centuries to capture both atmospheric qualities and incredible scientific detail.

The first uses of watercolour date back to the 1100s where maps were painted on velum. Some over early painting such as this one from the 1600s feels surprisingly modern.

John Dunstall c.1660

The botanical painting room was one of my favourites. These beautiful and astoundingly accurate paintings were created with up to twenty or thirty translucent washes of colour, and sometimes a little gouache and pencil. In a time before camera, the watercolour artist was a vital way to record new discoveries in the natural world.

Mark Catesby c.1728-9

Due to it’s portable nature watercolours were also the meduim of choice to capture the world around on a larger scale. Turner was the luminary of this practice. Light and mood were as important as the geography.

Turner, The Blue Rigi, Sunrise 1842

The room dedicated to the relationship of watercolour and the war was a particularly powerful one. The knowledge that these works were painted during the midst of the first and second world war, not retrospectively, makes them all more moving.

Patrick Heron 1983

The next rooms explore the physical limitation of water colour, dripped, splashed and pooled onto paper, and the seemingly limitless human imagination. Artists such as Edmund Dulac, Aubrey Beardsley, Gabriel Dante Rossetti and William Blake all use the medium of watercolour to convey  other-worldliness and flights of fancy.

The exhibition is on at the Tate Britain until the 21st of August.


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