Wednesday 12 September 2012

190-195 Piccadilly W1

190-195 Piccadilly was built as a gallery, headquarters and club for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. The Royal Academy just down the street was too elevated to admit watercolourists, regarding oils as the only acceptable medium for art.
Unfortunately, the watercolourists were just as cliquey and two societies emerged, the Society of Painters in Water Colours (known as the Old Society) and the New Society of Painters in Water Colours.
The two were at war for centuries and still don't talk. The Old Society (now the Royal Watercolour Society) is in trendy Bankside and the New Society (now the Royal Institute) shares premises in the Mall.
For nearly a century, however, the RI was the much more richly housed, in the prominent building designed by E.R. Robson and ornamented with sculpture by Edward Onslow Ford.
Ford was largely self-taught, though he did study on the Continent. He specialised in portrait sculpture, so it is a particular gift that the front of the RI features a series of his busts of prominent watercolourists. I have only heard of one of them, which I suspect is due to a combination of the continuing prejudice against painters in water colours and my own stupendous ignorance.
David Cox (1783-1859). Who? Apparently, he was once regarded as rivaled only by Constable for his depictions of cloudscapes. I really must look at some of his pictures.
Peter De Wint (1784 - 1849) was trained as an engraver and painted in both oils and watercolours. He is particularly known for pictures of Lincoln, done on visits to his in-laws. 
George Barret Jr (1767 - 1842), the son of the Irish painter George Barret Sr, was the Stakhanov of watercolours, never missing a Royal Watercolour Society exhibition in the 38 years from its founding in 1804. He started with views of the Thames Valley, moving later to romantic imaginary landscapes after the manner of Claude. 
William Henry Hunt (1790 - 1864) was one of the founders of English water colour painting, developing a wide range of techniques admired by Ruskin. 
Paul Sandby (1731 - 1809) was a splendid example of the close relationship of water colour painting with soldiering. He started life as a draughtsman with the Board of Ordnance making maps, and began painting landscapes when he was surveying the Scottish Highlands. Later he rose to become Chief Drawing Master at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. All army officers (including my father) were expected to be able to produce a credible watercolour landscape for intelligence purposes. I suppose they do it with their mobile phones these days, sadly.
Thomas Girtin (1775 - 1802) was a childhood friend of Turner, the teenage pair getting jobs colouring prints. He is credited with inventing English Romantic watercolour painting. 
John Robert Cozens (1752 - 1797) travelled on the Continent with the notable mad person William Beckford, and sadly ended up in Bethlem himself, where he died. His paintings were dramatic and primitive in execution, but Constable himself called him 'the greatest genius that ever touched landscape.'
And finally, a name I recognise. Turner. The man. The greatest watercolourist of them all, and indeed one of the greatest artists of all time in any medium. 


Sparky said...

The watercolor artist, William Henry Hunt, was not the father of the artist Alfred William Hunt. W. H. Hunt had but one child, a daughter, Emma Hunt. The two artists, despite their sharing the same, common last name, were totally unrelated.

Craig Englund

Chris Partridge said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Craig. Alfred William Hunt's father was Andrew Hunt, a painter and friend of David Cox. How confusing - and now corrected.