Among the recent acquisitions is Durham Cathedral and Castle(about 1800) by Thomas Girtin, a dramatic view of a medieval cathedral and castle set on a rocky outcrop above the water, amid the moving light of a bright, cloudy sky. Girtin died of tuberculosis at the age of 27, two years after making this drawing. His rival J.M.W. Turner is reputed to have said “Had poor Tom lived, I would have starved.”
Another is View of the Church of Our Lady of Hanswijk, Mechelen (1831) by Thomas Shotter Boys, a central figure in Anglo-French artistic exchange of the period, and one of the most sophisticated practitioners of watercolor. He excelled in capturing effects of atmosphere and mood.
“I think this is one of his greatest works. It’s just so perfect—every touch has something to say,” Brooks said. “The very calm water is achieved by scratching through the watercolor to the white paper, and the gray in the sky almost makes you want to reach for your umbrella.”
In the early 1700s watercolor painting was seen as an amateur pastime unworthy of true painters, but toward the end of the century British artists started to make watercolors designed to compete directly with oil paintings. They were bigger, with strong colors and dramatic compositions. The “exhibition watercolor” attracted new audiences of collectors and produced some of the most technically complex and powerful works in the medium.
To gather motifs and material for their exhibited works, British artists of the 1700s and 1800s often made sketching trips. Equipped with sketchbooks and portable boxes containing dry cakes of watercolor pigment and, later, moist versions and tubes, artists could easily capture the elements and effects of nature in color. Luminous Paper: British Watercolors and Drawings includes a sketchbook filled on a tour of northern England and Scotland by artist William Bell Scott and a paint box of the era, in addition to other books and letters from the collection of the Getty Research Institute.
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