16 February – 21 August 2011
Challenging both the scope and nature of what we understand as watercolour, this Tate Britain exhibition looks beyond the delicate landscapes of Britain's so-called golden age, incorporating maps, manuscripts and modern art into a provocative dialogue about the development of the genre.
Some 200 works chart the development of the medium, from the earliest examples of draughtsmanship or 'tinted drawings' from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the contemporary works of Anish Kapoor and Andy Goldsworthy.Cheap and quick-drying, the practical benefits of watercolour have materially shaped its history and usage. Watercolours, we are shown, shade the delicate figures in illuminated manuscripts, document the plant and animal life on Captain Cook's voyage, and allow official war artists such as Paul Nash to convey a sense of immediacy.At the heart of the exhibition are the nineteenth-century watercolours of Girtin and Turner (including the Art Funded landscape The Blue Rigi, acclaimed for its delicate play of light on water), works in which watercolour's convenience as visual record are secondary to its expressive possibilities.
A haze of muted greys and browns scarred and cross-hatched with barbed wire, Paul Nash's Wire is as far from the dilettante dabblings associated with watercolour as it is possible to imagine. Dominating the foreground is a blasted tree, its branches lolling downwards like so many useless limbs. A traditional symbol of life and hope becomes in Nash's hands a memento mori: nature poisoned irrevocably by war.The earliest surviving map of Britain, Matthew Paris's Map of the British Isles was drawn in around 1250 to adorn the pages of the monk's historical manuscript. There is a pleasing approximation to its geography, with the Wash absent altogether and the generous North of Scotland poised upon the narrowest of bases. Paris himself acknowledges his map's shortcomings in a note that reads: 'If the page allowed, this whole island would be longer.' The soft pastel green of the sea and more vivid blue of the rivers are the product of tinted washes that would have been both cheap and widely available.Related storiesPreview video by the Tate offering an introduction to the exhibition.Blog by Tate's Watercolour Curator, Alison Smith.Gallery of Turner's watercolours on the BBC news site.Gallery of Turner's watercolours as seen in 2009 National Gallery of Scotland exhibition in the Guardian.