Sean Goedecke is a freelance writer trying to visit every cafe in Australia. If you enjoy his articles, it can't hurt to click the 'like' link at the bottom or subscribe.
Soft colours and warm light, around delicately-traced lines and detailed scenery: these things are what characterize the revolution in British watercolours from 1760-1900. The Age of Splendour, an exhibition at NGV International on St Kilda Road, describes the course of this revolution. Many major pieces from the gallery collection are on display, including the work of artists Paul Sandby, Thomas Gainsborough, J.M.W. Turner, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Lear. The exhibition begins on the 14th of October this year and ends on the 19th of February next year, so be prepared to visit before the opportunity passes.
In the period covered by the exhibition, the careful, almost mechanical drawing of the topographical draughtsman was adapted by the artists of the Romantic and Victorian era into a distinct style of art. It's possible to see the influence of the draughtsman's lines in many of the paintings on display. Look for instances of high detail in the depiction of a city in the distance, for example, with every window individually drawn – or in the twisting branches of a tree, complete with fragments of bark and climbing vines. Next to this, though, is the effect that the watercolour paints provide: glowing colours, perfect for depicting a hazy afternoon or the surface of a calm ocean.
On display for the first time in this exhibition will be 'The Stepping Stones on the Wharfe, above Bolten Abbey, Yorkshire', painted in 1801 by Thomas Girtin. This work is one of the best acquisitions made by the NGV in its 150th anniversary year, and will be added to the Prints and Drawings collection. Many of the other works, although long members of the gallery collection, have not been on display in more than fifty years – and it may be another fifty before they are on display again. Seeing some of them will be literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Samuel Palmer's 'The Golden City', painted in 1973. Image courtesy of NGV website
In the early 19th century, professional societies were established to promote art made with watercolours, and from these came the 'exhibition watercolour': a kind of painting that was comparable to the more respectable oil paintings in size, sharpness of colour, effect and subject matter. The deepness of the colour in oil paintings was countered by density and layering of colour, combined with a very complex technique. Thomas Girtin and J.M.W. Turner were instrumental in this transition, pioneering new tricks and technical advancements that influenced generations of watercolour artists.
J.M.W Turner's 'The Red Rigi', painted in 1842. Image courtesy of NGV website
Art exhibitions are often too confronting – think crucifixion paintings and hideous scenes from ancient history – or confusing, as is the case with a lot of abstract art. For those of us without a beret or a degree in Art History, The Age of Splendour exhibition is more palatable, dealing as it does with more universal subjects. These are paintings of love and beauty, not suffering and death, and while some can be a touch melancholy, the sadness is always balanced by a sense of still calm. This is the kind of exhibition you might go to in order to inspire a love of painting, whether in yourself, your friends or family, or your children.