Places of the Mind: British watercolours

After an energetic morning’s teaching at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine I treated myself to a visit to the British Museum’s exhibition Places of the Mind: British Watercolour Landscapes 1850-1950. It is in watercolours that the British excel: the medium is suited to our rain-soaked, cloudy, misty, understated landscape just as oil paint is suited to the sun and drama of the South of France. Given a chance to own a painting by Turner, the greatest British painter, I would opt for one of his watercolours, the medium that brought him closest to his ambition to paint light itself.

The exhibition takes its title from an essay by Geoffrey Grigson in which he argues that “every landscape drawing is a construct of the mind and imagination of its creator – an attempt to convey not merely the physical properties of a landscape but an almost spiritual quest to capture its essence and sense of place.” This is really statement of the obvious: every painting, especially those done quickly with the landscape before the artist, must be composed from the landscape itself and what is in the mind of the artist.


At the beginning of the exhibition I read a statement from John Ruskin: “There is a strong instinct in me, which I cannot analyse, to draw and describe the things I love–not for reputation, nor for the good of others…but a sort of instinct, like that for eating and drinking.” My immediate thought is that I could adopt those words to my own compulsion to write: “There is a strong instinct in me, which I cannot analyse, to write about and digest the things I experience–not for reputation, nor for the good of others…but a sort of instinct, like that for eating and drinking.” The instinct has got stronger as I’ve got older, coming closer to death and total extinction.

The overwhelming feeling of the exhibition was of melancholy, a sweet melancholy, a feeling I often get in the British countryside. I am more conscious in the countryside of the past, the dead, the passing of time, my own fragility, the brief candle of my life. Very few of the pictures included people, or there might be one small figure in a large landscape. There were empty forest glades, still lakes, distant mountains, and big cloud-filled skies.

The starting date of 1850 was chosen because it was the year that Turner died, and the century that followed saw the industrialisation of Britain (which is signified mostly by the longing for the countryside, although there were a couple of industrial landscapes), the end of the British Empire (which seems not important at all), and two world wars (which are reflected in a painting of graves by Sargent, although from before the First World War, but mainly in the paintings becoming more abstract and tortured).


Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore are heavily featured, and Sutherland, who is described as having done to landscape what Picasso did for portraits, was strongly influential. From earlier times Whistler and Sargent, both Americans, painted exquisite landscapes, with Sargent’s pictures full of the bright colour and energy that was lacking in most of the paintings.


Although I loved the nostalgic, melancholic feel of the exhibition, I did enjoy the few paintings that used bright, strong colours. Watercolours done that way can work well, as Sargent and Arthur Melville showed in this exhibition.


As an adolescent walking in the Lake District and the Pennines, I painted dozens of watercolours, all now lost. Perhaps I should return to painting them, perhaps on North Uist.




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