British Landscapes: The Golden Age of Watercolor

TurnerIt was in England that there developed a dominant group of artists who explored landscape painting through the medium of transparent watercolor. It is important to note some of the influences which prevailed and contributed to this movement.

It could be said that the “Grand Tour” or the importance of travel between England and the Continent greatly influenced English taste in art. The popular itinerary was France, Switzerland and Italy with the discovery of Rome as a final destination. The Grand Tour included visits to the Louvre and the Neoclassical romanticized landscape paintings of Poussin and Lorraine, the direct exposure to the vast ‘Nature’ of Switzerland, and on to a culminating experiences of Italy and admiration of the ancient ruins and beauty of Rome.

It was the topographical drawings that began to take prominence in the latter part of the 17th and early part of the 18th century that really provided the base for what would become the British watercolor tradition.

Paul Sandby (1731-1809)

Paul Sandby

Paul Sandby

One of the artists who brought attention to the topographical was Paul Sandby, (1731-1809) who as a founding member of the Royal Academy, was influential in bringing attention to the medium of watercolor as a serious venue, and helped get watercolorists shown in their exhibitions next to the painters in oil or the sculptors in marble. Sandby was described in his obituaries as ‘the father of modern landscape painting in watercolors’.

No lesser artist than Thomas Gainsborough described him as “the only man of genius” to produce “real views from Nature in this country”.

Yet Sandby’s reputation was as much based on his innovative technical expertise, and influence on his students and contemporaries and his importance as a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts (along with his brother Thomas)

Royal Academy: The Exhibition Room at Somerset House

The Royal Academy: The Exhibition Room at Somerset House

in 1768, as he was for his recognized skills as an artist. colour, characters or detail. For much of his career, he specialized in large scale watercolors, which expressed topographical discipline, and complexity of structure.

For 30 years Paul Sandby was chief drawing master at the Woolwich Military Academy.

In addition to his practice of using body­colour, (sometimes referred to as gouache) Sandby also pioneered and developed the aquatint method of etching in tone on copper, and his first set of aquatints consisted of a dozen views of south Wales which appeared in 1775.

Alexander Cozens (1717–1786)

Alexander Cozens 'The Cloud' circa 1770, Tate Britain

Alexander Cozens ‘The Cloud’ circa 1770, Tate Britain

Another contemporary of Sandby was Alexander Cozens (1717–1786). He and his son John Robert Cozens (1752-1797) pushed the venue of landscape and the British tradition beyond that of the topographers.

“While in topographical views atmospheric effects were typically omitted, Cozens considered these “circumstances” to be the chief “organ of sentiment” for conveying notions of the Sublime. Cozens’ concern to render assemblages instantaneously, through subconscious thought, in some ways parallels the free association and automatism evident in the works of Surrealist writers, painters, and later Abstract Expressionist artists.”


Alexander Cozens, 'A Blot: Landscape Composition'  circa 1770-80

Alexander Cozens, ‘A Blot: Landscape Composition’ circa 1770-80, Tate Britain


Cozens’s famous ‘blot’ technique was fully evolved by the 1750s. However he did not explain it in detail until the publication of ‘A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape'(1786). The idea seems to have originally been developed by him as a teaching aid, to liberate the imagination of the student who, he felt, spent too much time in copying the works of others. He wrote that the blot was a ‘production of chance, with a small degree of design’. The true blot was ‘an assemblage of accidental shapes’, ‘forms without lines from which ideas are presented to the mind’. Blotting was done deliberately, the ‘rude forms’ which result having been made ‘at will’.

John Robert Cozens (1752-1797)

John Robert Cozens 'Lake Albano' c 1790The younger Cozens was among the first to brush washes directly onto clean white paper ground rather than painting over monochromatic drawing. This process alone contributed to bringing out the clarity and color associated with the watercolor medium.

John Roberts mature style derives, to a great extent, from his training with his father, Alexander Cozens (c. 1717-86), which explains his attitudes to composition, texture and color.

But his works also expressed profound originality and offered an individual view of Nature and the grandeur of creation.

J. R. Cozens executed watercolors with atmospheric effects and poetic interpretation. His work had an influence on both Thomas Girtin and J.M.W. Turner. His Alpine views offer a sense of the vast mysterious landscape. John Constable called J. R. Cozens “the greatest genius that ever touched landscape.”

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)

Thomas Girtin 'Near Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire'

Thomas Girtin ‘Near Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire’

Thomas Girtin became friends with J. M. W. Turner (born in the same year) when the two teenagers were employed to colour prints with watercolour. Between 1793 and 1795 they worked side by side.

Girtin’s early landscapes are in the vein of the 18th century topographical works. However, in later years he developed a style which was bolder and more romanticized, one which became an enduring influence in the history of British painting.

In studying the landscape of the North, as he toured England on sketching trips, Girtin transitioned from the cooler palette of Cozens, creating a warmer palette, and discontinued using a grey wash underpainting with added patches of color overlays. Instead he utilized broad washes of strong color and introduced pen, brown ink and varnish to achieve richer tonality. With Thomas Girtin’s untimely death at age 27, Turner reportedly remarked, “Had Tom lived I should have starved”. Another contemporary, Joseph Farington (1747-1821) described Girtin as ‘a genius’.

John Constable (1776-1817)

John Constable, 'Stonehenge, Wiltshire', 1836. Victoria and Albert Museum

John Constable, ‘Stonehenge, Wiltshire’, 1836. Victoria and Albert Museum

Both Turner and Constable (1776-1817) were strongly admired by the French Impressionists and were an influence in their development. Constable is considered one of the major English landscape artists of the 19th Century. His art was admired by Delacroix and Gericault and influenced the masters of Barbizon and even the Impressionists, although he did not achieved much fame during his lifetime in England, his own country. Constable wrote that “It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the keynote, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment … the sky is the source of light in nature, and governs everything.” Skies were indeed very important in the total ouevre of Constable’s watercolors and oils.

Constable’s painting of Stonehenge (1836) is perhaps the largest and most finished watercolor that he ever made.

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)

John Sell Cotman 'Greta Bridge' c 1807, The British Museum

John Sell Cotman ‘Greta Bridge’ c 1807, The British Museum

Cotman came to London from his native Norwich in 1798 and soon entered the circle of artists centred around Dr Thomas Monro, a physician who welcomed watercolourists into his home, providing a meeting place, and offering financial support and the opportunity to study and copy his impressive collection.

J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Girtin were among his many protégés. Cotman travelled widely around Britain, producing many pencil drawings and colour sketches that he later worked up into carefully patterned watercolors.

John Sell Cotman also produced watercolors with a kind of startling modernity, and these works only gained popularity in the 20th Century.


John Sell Cotman 'The Swallow Falls, North Wales'  1803

John Sell Cotman ‘The Swallow Falls, North Wales’ 1803


J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) Early and Late Works


Turner, “Glacier and Source of the Avereiron”

Kenneth Clark, in his book, Landscape Into Art, states: “Turner by upbringing and by predilection was a painter in water-colours. This is one of the many things about him which alienate continental opinion, for the classic tradition has never consider water-colour a medium of serious painting.”

“. . . There is no doubt that as time went on Turner, like Cezanne, was influenced in his oil technique by his experience of water-colour. In many of his later pictures the oil medium is used so exactly like water-colour that in reproduction it is impossible to tell which is which.”

“. . . In Turner’s painting the relation between experience and imagination is very delicate.”

Around 1815, Turner became the first watercolorist to extensively utilize the wet-in-wet resources of the medium. He used the wet paper to float and mingle large areas of color, and through the development of these techniques, he was able to increase the size of his paintings to three feet or more.

The late Turner watercolors, which transitioned from the finite detail of his early paintings to the later luminous abstract works, were still based on heightened experiences in nature. Many of the atmospheric effects more widely known from Turner’s late oil paintings actually appeared first, and in more expressive and varied forms, in his watercolors.

 Turner, Venice, Storm at Sunset, (c. 1840, 22 X 32 cm)

Turner, “Venice, Storm at Sunset” (c. 1840, 22 X 32 cm)

The importance of the 19th Century British watercolorists has often been underestimated. Turner’s late, ethereal watercolors really became more widely popular concurrent with the advent of abstract painting in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Kenneth Clark has indicated that “Contemporary taste has judged Turner, like Corot, by the pictures he did not exhibit.”

It is true that the late works of Turner did not contribute to the development of art.  These works, often called sketches, were not even exhibited until a few were presented in 1906.

Turner painted the elements of nature, destructive forces, avalanches, whirlwinds, and deluges. These latter works, which are almost coloristically abstract, seem to portray a more vivid feeling of nature than his early works, where individual shapes and colors are minutely described. Ruskin indicated that it was Turner’s truth which was important, and which distinguished him from his contemporaries.


JMW Turner, 'The Scarlet Sunset' c. 1830-40 Tate Collection

JMW Turner, ‘The Scarlet Sunset’ c. 1830-40 Tate Collection

Resources And Exhibitions

The Golden Age of Watercolor

The Golden Age of Watercolours

The Hickman Bacon Collection. Book text by Eric Shanes

An exhibition hosted in 2002 at theYale Center for British Art in New Haven, the “Golden Age of Watercolours” presented an excellent selection of 82 works from the most outstanding private collection of British watercolors. The collection of more than 400 English watercolor landscapes of the Romantic period was assembled by Hickman Bacon (1855-1945). The collection was acquired primarily between 1895 and 1914.

Among those represented were Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) and John Robert Cozens (1752-1797) who was described by English painter John Constable (1776-1837) as the “the greatest genius that ever touched landscape” and J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Among other noted artists included David Cox, Peter Dewint.

Cozens is said to have expanded the “spatial breadth and character of landscape images” and influenced both Girtin and Turner. For Cotman, the watercolor medium presented a very lucid method of representing reality.

From: Grace Glueck, The New York Times, Friday, December 13, 2002:

“The short-lived Thomas Girtin (175-1802) was an exact contemporary of Turner and worked with him early on in the atelier of Thomas Monro, a doctor, artist and amateur collector, making copies of works by well-known artists. An innovator, Girtin had a decided influence on Turner by way of his extensive technical insight and his ability to convey a sense of space and atmosphere.”

The Technology of Watercolor Pigments and Paints in Britain

Winsor-Newton history of colour tubes

Winsor-Newton history of colour tubes

As the British school of watercolor was progressing, there were technical developments which supported the artists. Early watercolorists had to grind their own pigments and size whatever papers they could find so that the fibers would not soak up the paint. William Reeves, who was known as the “colorman” first sold pigments made into cakes, while Winsor and Newton introduced colors contained in metal tubes by 1846.

Paul Sandby 'A View of Vinters at Boxley, Kent, with Mr. Whatman’s Turkey Paper Mills' 1794

Paul Sandby ‘A View of Vinters at Boxley, Kent, with Mr. Whatman’s Turkey Paper Mills’ 1794

James Whatman (and later, his son, James Whatman II) headed another British company which started to produce papers which were made specifically for watercolorists. The papers were made in three finishes; smooth (“hot-pressed”), medium (“cold-pressed” or “not”) and rough, and all of these variations were treated with a special hard size which prevented the paint from sinking in.

These watercolor papers set such a high standard, that it is one by which papers are currently judged.

Both mouldmade and handmade papers were produced which were very popular with J.M.W. Turner and other English watercolor painters.