A generation of extraordinary artists plus major advances in technology came together to form a Golden Age of watercolour painting in Britain between 1750 and 1850. This article investigates how artists in this period developed the expressive potential of watercolour painting, particularly in the landscape genre, and how they were enabled to do so by British manufacturers such as Winsor & Newton. We will see the transition of watercolour painting from niche, specialised functions into a new and widely available artform enjoyed by both professional, and for the very first time, amateur artists.
Watercolour Before 1780
Watercolour had specialist applications before 1780 such as for military mapmaking, or in botany to create taxonomic illustrations. Private landowners hired ‘topographic artists’ to record, illustrate and show off their property, artists such as William Pars (1742 – 1782) would make careful pencil drawings on location then tint them later with watercolour.
Individual watercolour ingredients were available for purchase at an apothecary. The hardened gum of the acacia tree, known as Gum Arabic, was diluted in water, then blended with pigments ground up in a pestle and mortar to create the paint, suitable for use until the water evaporated.
The Picturesque Landscape
The 18th Century English countryside was an inaccessible place of work and private ownership. This changed in 1782 when the Reverend William Gilpin (1724-1804) published a travel guide illustrated with his watercolour sketches and setting out new ideas on how to look at and appreciate the country. It was a sensation and enthusiasts foraged with his guide into the country looking through their ‘Claude glasses’ (a black mirror that artists used to observe the landscape; the reflection simplified the colour and tonal range, creating a painterly image in the glass) for suitably ‘Picturesque’ landscapes. Artists soon followed and the new ways of engaging with the countryside helped establish the first recognisably British art tradition of Landscape painting, finding its high points in the art of JMW Turner (1775- 1851) and John Constable (1776-1837).
Ideal for sketching outdoors, watercolour painting was made easier when colourman William Reeves introduced re-usable watercolour cakes in 1781. By adding honey to the formula, the paint became re-wettable as honey is hydrophilic, attracting water and never fully drying. Re-wetting was an arduous process however, the cakes needing to be immersed in water before use then rubbed vigorously into an oyster shell or ceramic dish.
Turner and Constable
Watercolour was central to both Turner and Constable’s innovations in landscape painting. Tintern Abbey 1794 (below) shows Turner moving watercolour on from the topographic illustration of the tinted drawing into a standalone expressive artform. For working onsite, Turner created his own field set by wetting his watercolour cakes then sticking them inside an old leather folio cover. Taking advantage of watercolours’ immediacy, Constable sketched sky studies so accurate they pushed forward the new science of meteorology. Notes of cloud types, location, time, and wind speed on the verso of his sketches informed the rich sense of place that is so compelling in his studio paintings. Painting outside in Suffolk during the summer, Constable habitually wintered in London where he kept a studio and lodgings.
Chemist William Winsor and businessman Henry Newton must have had an exciting sense of the potential for their artists’ colourmen business in 1832.
Winsor’s house and the work premises were at 38, Rathbone Place in London’s Fitzrovia. The street was a network of artists’ studios, busy with just the type of professionals they wished to cater for. John Constable was their neighbour at number 50 and JMW Turner would become a regular visitor, ‘Your business, Winsor, is to make colour. Mine is to use them.’
The most developed industrial city in the world, London gave them access to skilled toolmakers, engineering mills that would grind and mill pigments to a refinement that ‘set the international standard for generations to come’.
A gifted chemist, Winsor had early successes for Winsor & Newton with the introduction of Chinese White in 1834 (ill.2) the first white formulated to work in watercolour, then in 1835 the creation of new ‘moist’ watercolours. By adding glycerine to the formula, Winsor & Newton’s watercolour cakes were re-wettable with the stroke of a wet brush only.
The creative environment of artists and industrialists around Rathbone Place included talented chemists such as George Field, (1777-1854) an associate of Winsor & Newton and colourman to Turner. Field’s newly synthesised colours such as Cobalt blue and violet were put to immediate use by Turner, creating watercolour paintings of the fullest artistic expression.
Turner and Constable had transformed watercolour painting and by the late 1830s, Winsor & Newtons’ industrial manufacturing standards, new formulations, vibrant new colours and convenient packaging had done the same for watercolour paints.
The Watercolour Craze
Fashion for the Picturesque and commercially available materials created a national craze for watercolour, now known as the ‘English Art’. Watercolour painting became integrated into British society and education, suitable particularly for young women of middling and higher rank. Winsor & Newton set standards at the top end of the materials market and other manufacturers soon followed, the so-called ‘shilling colour box’ selling over 11 million units between 1853 and 1870.
Perhaps characteristically for Britain, the Golden Age of watercolour painting found its expression not just with supremely gifted artists such as Turner and Constable but in an enormous popular uptake by amateur artists. The development of artists’ paint in this period, accelerated by an extraordinary generation of artists, chemists, and industrialists, created an international gold standard for Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour that it holds to this day.
Material Matters: Artist Ann-Marie James on using Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour
Ann-Marie James is an artist who works with various mediums including: painting, drawing, printmaking and collage.