Watercolour cover“Watercolour” Exhibition At Tate Britain

Looking At 800 Years of British Watercolour

The “Watercolour” exhibition at the Tate reviews the history of British watercolor painting from its early appearance in the Middle Ages right on up to the present. There are about 200 works presented in the exhibit. Among the historical inclusions are works by William Blake, Thomas Girtin and J.M.W. Turner. Among those included in the contemporary section are Patrick Heron, Howard Hodgkin, Anish Kapoor, Peter Doig and Tracey Emin.

(Because this exhibition is a major effort to focus broadly on the medium of watercolour (or watercolor) through several centuries and through several different categories, Watercolor.net will show a broad overview of the work and summarize much of the material which has been presented and reviewed about this exhibition.

Check out the various categories and look at the videos to get the best overview of this vast project.)

Introduction To The ‘Watercolour’ Exhibition

“Watercolour at Tate Britain invites you to challenge your preconceptions of what watercolour is. The most ambitious exhibition about watercolour ever to be staged, with works spanning 800 years, this boundary-breaking survey celebrates the full variety of ways watercolour has been used. From manuscripts, miniatures and maps through to works showing the expressive visual splendour of foreign landscapes, watercolour has always played a part in British Art. . . .

The exhibition presents a full and fresh assessment on the history and future of watercolour painting. It aims to question our thoughts on what watercolour stands for, presenting famous and lesser-known works side by side and bringing this popular, universal and enduring medium back to the centre of our cultural heritage.”

Hearing From The Lead Curator: Alison Smith

Alison Smith, the lead curator of Tate Britain’s exhibition ‘Watercolour’ at Tate Britain explained some background in regard to the exhibition as follows:

“Some of the most iconic works of art in Tate’s Collection are watercolours – Turner’s Blue Rigi, Blake’s River of Life, as well as works by Paul Nash and David Jones.”

J.M.W. Turner, 'Blue Rigi', 1842

J.M.W. Turner, 'Blue Rigi', 1842


William Blake, River of Life'



Paul Nash, 'Wire'











“Despite this, the medium of watercolours remains an underrated one.”

“Even though Tate has many thousands of watercolours, this is the first time that we have done an exhibition on watercolour from its origins in illuminated manuscripts right through to the present day. And we have brought together some truly remarkable works – from the jewel-like brilliancy of Hilliard’s Elizabeth I to Edward Burra’s large and sombre Mexican Church, and beyond to the present day with works by artists such as Tracey Emin, Hayley Tompkins and Anish Kapoor.”

Hilliard, 'Elizabeth I' on vellum

Hilliard, 'Elizabeth I' on vellum

Edward Burra 'Mexican Church'

Edward Burra 'Mexican Church'

Edmond Dulac 'Entomologist's Dream'

Edmond Dulac 'Entomologist's Dream'

Our show aims to reveal the extraordinary and varied, if uneven history of watercolour through the centuries. Historically, the practice of watercolour has often been seen as a means to an end – done for practical purposes, such as botanical illustration, topographical depiction or as designs. However, as it evolved, it became a medium in its own right, and watercolours were soon prized for their colours, fluidity and translucent qualities.”

So, the aim of ‘Watercolour’ is to survey these changes over time. For example, when we think of watercolour, many of us think of landscape or flower painting (and there are some wonderful examples of those in our show, such as Georg Dionysius Ehret’s 18th century work Study of Asphodeline Lutea. But watercolour has also been used for documentation, for observation, for expressing inner fantasies and responses to immediate sensory experiences, including Dulac’s The Entomologist’s Dream (1909), and Richard Parke Bonnington’s Verona, Piazza dell’Erbe (1826-1827).


Richard Parks Bonnington.'Verona, Piazza dell’Erbe' (1826-1827)

“And through our selection of watercolours (which can only be a limited selection) we are aiming to show how the status of watercolour has been contested in the past.

We know that watercolour could too readily be associated with the amateur artist, but it has similarly been used by artists to display their artistic talents. Also, what we would like to explore in this exhibition, is the question – is watercolour a particularly British phenomenon?

Has it flourished because we are an island nation and were propelled to travel beyond our shores? And how about now? Is it possible to maintain this view when we exist in a multi-cultural society and within a global context?”

Alison Smith, lead curator, ‘Watercolour’ and Curator (Head of British Art to 1900), Tate Britain.

Tate Watercolour Tour With Alison Smith, Curator

Notes From The Curator Of The Contemporary Section

Neil TaitIn the Tate Blog, Katharine Stout indicates that she is the curator who made the contemporary selection for the Watercolour exhibition and she reveals the guidelines which she used in making her selections.

“When the idea of this show was first discussed between the co-curators, I was unsure about categorizing art in terms of its media, or more specifically type of paint, since so many artists today work in a variety of disciplines and materials. They are driven by their ideas rather than the formal properties of a particular medium.

Yet when I started to research further into how watercolour is used today I was struck by how for many artists, the material properties of the medium are so well suited to the concepts and themes they wish to investigate and portray.

The myriad ways in which artists today are using water based paint (for the show has a broader reach than solely watercolour) are extensive and wide ranging which relates directly back to how watercolour has been used in the past, as you’ll see for example in the use of a modern version of tempera by Neal Tait.”



“Or watercolour as one of a whole range of materials in the piece by Karla Black in order to explore qualities of opacity and transparency using paint and other substances:

Made of what? Karla Black’s ‘Opportunity for Girls’ (2006). It is made of Cellophane, watercolour, emulsion, acrylic paint, vaseline, glass, shampoo, hair gel, toothpaste and thread.

Karla Black's 'Opportunity for Girls' (2006).

Karla Black, 'Opportunity for Girls' 2006

Many artists working now look to how artists in past eras forged new ground for watercolour, while seeking to find their own range of possibilities for the medium.”

“We decided to represent certain thematic aspects of contemporary practice in depth rather than offering a more general survey of art being made today and so regrettably for example, living artists who paint directly from observed landscapes or nature have not been included here.

Even within the devised remit, it has been incredibly difficult to select within the inevitable space limits, and so the artists you will see in the show represent just a fraction of the vibrant and compelling work being made in watercolour in Britain today.

What also becomes apparent is that it seems almost impossible to generalise about watercolour as a particularly British art under the contemporary conditions of an ever changing multi-cultural society and when artists move so frequently between countries. But then perhaps the fluidity of ideas and formal concerns, alongside the restless movement of artists themselves is something that has always defined British art.”

Tour Of The Tate Watercolour Exhibition With Jon Snow