Great British Watercolours from the Paul Mellon
Collection at the Yale Center for British Art
On 23 October 2007 the exhibition Great British Watercolours from the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art opens in the building of the New Hermitage. It has been jointly organised by the Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, Connecticut, USA) and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond, Virginia, USA) in association with the State Hermitage Museum. Generous support has been provided by Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox.
The exhibition forms part of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Paul Mellon (1907-1999), an American collector, a passionate admirer of British art, a philanthropist and patron and founder of the Yale Center for British Art. Paul Mellon was also a great patron of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, to which he presented his collection of British sporting art on paper.
Paul Mellon was a major supporter of educational projects. Not satisfied with merely taking pleasure in his own collection, he made it widely accessible to the public. In 1966 Mellon (Yale College Class of 1929) declared his intention to found a research center for the study of British art at his alma mater, Yale University. He promised his collection of British Art, along with funds to build the Center and an endowment to ensure that admission would be free and open to the public. The Yale Center for British Art opened in 1977. Today the Center is home to the largest and most important collection of British Art outside the United Kingdom and includes paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, watercolours, rare books, maps and manuscripts. The objects from Great British Watercolours are drawn from the Center's collection of more than 50,000 works on paper.
Eighty-eight works by forty-five artists are included in this exhibition, encompassing British art history from the middle of the eighteenth century, when watercolour became an independent branch of painting, to the nineteenth century, when it came to be seen almost as England's 'national art form'. The history of watercolour lies in this cultural context, in a time when Britons were profoundly interested in their natural landscape and ancient monuments. Artists were driven by a passion for travelling by the opportunity to accompany celebrated travellers or patrons on The Grand Tour and to be inspired by the Classical art of Italy the desire to capture topographical views. During this period British artists moved beyond their former status as mere draughtsmen and recorders of views to become recognised artistic personalities.
Of special note are the monochrome studies of Alexander Cozens. Author of a paradoxical method of 'composing' landscape views, Cozens sought to teach his pupils not merely to copy nature but to imbue it with sublime, intellectual meaning. His work was hugely influential on his contemporaries. From the start of the seventeenth century we see amateur artists working for their own pleasure rather than to satisfy client commissions. One of these was William Taverner, a lawyer for whom painting in watercolours was a pastime and who showed his works only to his closest circle of friends. Taverner's landscape represents a fine combination of topographical record with a free approach to composition.
The exhibition includes views of ruined monasteries, crumbling chapels and castles, studies of Windsor and Canterbury and view of Bath (Britain's most fashionable city), Paris and Rome. Artists include Thomas Girtin, Jonathan Skelton, Francis Towne, Thomas Hearne, William Pars, all of whom were superb masters of watercolour using a variety of technical means. Three watercolours illustrate the skill of Paul Sandby, a notable figure in London's artistic life and one of the founders of the Royal Academy.
Also on view are two special studies by Thomas Gainsborough that date from his final years. Perpetually experimenting with a variety of techniques, Gainsborough made use of the dark yellow ground of the paper in what is otherwise a monochromatic image composed of shades of black and grey.
Landscape watercolours flourished in the late eighteenth century. Of note are the harmonious views of the Isola Madre in Lago Maggiore and of Lake Windermere by John Warwick Smith, the daring treatment of a riverscape by Thomas Hearne, and the riverscapes of Thomas Girtin, whose work was to inspire numerous contemporaries.
The nineteenth century commenced with a struggle on the part of watercolourists to be recognised as independent artists. Despite the success they had achieved, their social status remained unenviable, being considerably lower than that of other painters. In 1804 they established the Society of Painters in Watercolours, which held its first exhibition in 1805. Its success led to the creation of a New Society of Painters of Watercolours.
Seven works by Joseph Mallord William Turner trace how his colour combinations changed how he created atmospheric effects, reflecting qualities of light and colour and his understanding of form and the way that buildings seem to dissolve and tremble in mist and light. Viewers will also be drawn to works by leading painter and watercolourist John Constable, who studied how changes in atmospheric conditions altered the natural landscape.
The exhibition has been co-curated by Dr. Mathew Hargraves, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Yale Center for British Art and Dr. Scott Wilcox, Curator of Prints and Drawings, Yale Center for British Art and Dr. Asya Kantor-Gukovskaya, Senior Curator in the Department of Western European Fine Art, the State Hermitage Museum. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue in English by Dr. Matthew Hargraves, with an introduction by Dr. Scott Wilcox (Yale University Press, 2007). A booklet in Russian has been compiled by Dr. Asya Kantor-Gukovskaya and published by the Hermitage Publishing House.