Views of the 19th Century in Two Media Trying to Find Their Way

Two independently quite marvellous exhibits are at the Art Gallery of Alberta just now.  On the first floor in the Poole gallery there is another of the National Gallery of Canada‘s travelling shows — this a collection of fascinating, moving British photographs from the 19th Century.  On the second floor there is a perhaps more immediately arresting exhibition of two centuries of British watercolours from the Victoria and Albert Museum.  If the juxtaposition has not been planned, it is a stunningly fortuitous coincidence of schedules.  If planned, this plan is brilliant, for the exhibits, met together here in Edmonton, speak to each other, and we in Edmonton and Alberta have the opportunity to benefit inestimably from the conversation.

Having declared the inestimability, I will now, perhaps foolishly, attempt to estimate briefly the conversation and our benefits as gallery-goers.

Such comprehensive exhibits of art forms through their initial formative stages are certainly of great interest to students — whether formal or life-long-learners — of art history, and they are certainly of interest to working artists.  But at the AGA right now we can experience the development of two arts which came into maturity together, under each other’s influence, and often in the hands of single artists working in both media.  Both British watercolourists and British photographers worked in an effort to quickly capture the effects of light, particularly sunlight.  And, of great interest to life-long-learners and non-professional artists, much of the development of both arts was driven by dedicated and talented amateurs.

One of the most important photographers in the National Gallery exhibit, W. H. Fox Talbot, wrote in his first career as a draughtsman “How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper”.  A consideration of a number of the pieces from the V&A, such as Cromek’s “Temple of Saturn and Temple of Concord,” Prout’s “Porch of Ratisbon Cathedral” and Boyce’s “East End of Edward the Confessor’s Chapel and Tomb” makes clear that through effort and skill a watercolourist can produce a product such as Talbot dreamt of.  And Talbot himself went on to produce photographs of exquisite detail, such as “The Haystack”, in the National Gallery show.  But Talbot discovered that photography was itself a gruelling art, spending at least three years on the composition which would become “The Open Door.”

As they developed, both art forms rapidly branched out to a wide number of subject matters, but it seems the watercolourist and the photographer always stood side by side.  While Francis Frith was photographing the temples of Egypt, Edward Lear was painting them.  While Mansell was photographing cottages in Argyl, David Cox was painting the beaches of North Wales.  William Bell Scott painted iron workers of the Tyne while Rejlander and Thomson produced photographic portraits of the underclasses of London.

Photographers and watercolourists fanned out around the world, documenting, decorating, illustrating and making social and political statements.  Photographer Roger Fenton went to the Crimea to photograph the British war effort and watercolourist William Simpson carried his paintbox to the same conflict.  Conditions in the Crimea pointed out a fundamental difference between the media:  Fenton’s photos are necessarily static, limited by the photographic technology, while Simpson’s watercolours are filled with movement and colour.  While the photographs of the Crimean War are impartially and meticulously accurate as to physical details, the watercolours capture the moement and confusion that are only hinted at in photos like Fenton’s “Railway Sheds and Workshops, Balakalva.”

But photographers did not always strive for meticulous accuracy any more than did waterclourists always strive for the stunning — dare I say? — photo realism of Cromek’s paintings.  Many of the photographs in the National Gallery exhibit are printed from paper negatives, a technology which continued in use because of desired qualities of softness and depth that were lacking in the more “accurate glace plate negatives and albumin prints.  Many are composite prints made from several negatives.  Most are posed.  Meanwhile, watercolourists often painted impressionistic, expressive landscapes and posed figurative groupings.  Cozens distorted the verticality of the convent-topped rock in “Between Brixen and Balzano”.  Palmer produced an imaginary, allegorical landscape in “Going Home at Curfew Time”, and Turner — well, Turner was just Turner — hardly any realism but all of Reality in golden light and melancholy.

One could go on, but I’ll end with a metaphor.

British Watercolours, 1750-1950 and 19th Century British Photographs, now showing at the Art Gallery of Alberta illustrate beautifully that British Watercolour and British Photography are sister arts who walked hand-in-hand as they grew and developed through the 19th Century.  It is a joy and a wonder to watch the sisters stroll through the AGA.

19th Century British Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada continues until October 6, 2013.

British Watercolours: 1750-1950 continues until November 24, 2013.

I would also highly recommend that you find a way to afford the beautiful and detailed catalogues  from both exhibits.

british watercolours and photos

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