Overcoming an inferiority complex

PUBLISHED: 10:03 10 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013

William Lacey, pictures specialist at Halls, Shrewsbury, puts the case for watercolours - the graffiti of their day

William Lacey, pictures specialist at Halls, Shrewsbury, puts the case for watercolours - the graffiti of their day

Watercolours have traditionally been considered inferior to oils. This reputation has persisted from the 18th and 19th centuries when many of the major collections in this country were formed. In this 'golden age' watercolours were generally used as preparatory sketches for major oil paintings. An artist would work out details of composition or take a sketch book with him to record light, weather conditions and other details which could be used later in the studio. These visual notes were never intended to be displayed and certainly no self-respecting collector would consider purchasing a watercolour sketch.
These spontaneous workings often reveal the artist free from the formal constraints of traditional composition or complying with the wishes of a wealthy patron. John Constable once declared that 'J.M.W. Turner's maid must have thrown some of the great man's best work away - swept up from the studio floor'. Constable certainly had a point as Turner's quick sketches show a wonderful deftness of touch and vitality, qualities often lost in his more formal works.
The Old Watercolour Society was established in 1804. Founder members included the Irish artist George Barret, John Varley and Joshua Cristall. The OWS was formed as a reaction to the poor treatment watercolour artists had received at the Royal Academy. Their works were always hung high and out of sight and works by an artist who worked solely in watercolour would not be accepted. The OWS held its own very successful exhibitions and did much to promote the medium.
One of the great 19th Century watercolour artists was the Birmingham born David Cox (1783 - 1859). He became a member of the OWS in 1820. Cox established a very successful teaching practice in London before moving to Hereford in 1815. He travelled widely but took the greatest inspiration from the scenery of North Wales.
David Cox had a distinctive technique - flecks of colour are applied over sweeping washes. He had a wonderful ability to capture atmosphere. Clouds scud along in the breeze, rain showers sparkle and men and beasts strain under their burdens. Cox's use of watercolour to describe the light and weather conditions of a view rather than recording an accurate geographical record was totally new and pre-empted the ideas of the French Impressionists. He was often imitated. Many of his pupils were influenced by his style, others are simply fakes.
Many watercolours signed 'Cox' brought into the auction room are not genuine. Often the minor signature has been removed or the relatively simple 'D.Cox' applied on top in the hope of making a mediocre work more valuable.
One of the finest British watercolour artists of the late 19th Century/early 20th Century was Albert Goodwin (1845-1932). Like Cox, Goodwin had a distinctive and an unmistakable style. He worked in the opposite way to most artists by painting the background first before adding detailed drawing on top. He was also happy to experiment, often using a combination of mediums such as coloured crayons, pastel, coloured inks as well as watercolour to achieve the desired effect.
Halls recently sold a large collection of Goodwins, which attracted international interest. Some of the better watercolours sold for over £2,000 despite being just sketch book sized.
The view of Rye in Sussex (illustrated) was drawn in 1908. Goodwin has created a tremendous depth to the scene using the figure and animals to mark the foreground and give some sense of scale to the composition. The hill top town is seen shimmering in the distance against the bright blue of the summer sky.
There is no doubt that currently the strongest area of the art market is the modern and contemporary sector. An untitled and entirely abstract drawing by Sir Terry Frost (1915-2003) soared above the estimate of £400 to £600 to fetch a winning bid of £2,100 in a recent Halls' sale.
The drawing was mixed media of watercolour and coloured crayon and almost childlike in its simplicity. I suppose everyone would have a different interpretation of the work. To me the image resembled some sort of plant form; however Frost may have simply been creating a harmony of shapes, tones and planes with no intention of the work being representational. The drawing certainly drew mixed responses. There was a look of astonishment on the faces of many of the more traditional art lovers as the hammer dropped. Conversely, fans of contemporary pictures question what relevance a depiction of a pretty lady in Victorian dress outside a thatched cottage has to their lives today.
Of course this is the age-old debate: 'What is art?'
I wonder how many people have woken up to find their wall or shed has been covered in graffiti during the night and then had to spend the weekend re-painting the offending article? Now termed 'urban art', graffiti is big business these days. Biggest name of all is 'Banksy' whose graffiti paintings can be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Entire buildings have been demolished to send a genuine Banksy wall to auction. The wall is then painstakingly reassembled in a swanky London saleroom, attracting bidders from all over the world.
Fortunately it is this diversity of opinion that keeps the art market buoyant and keeps artists searching for new ideas.

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