In the history of Western art, watercolour has always been the poor relation of oil paint. Used only for sketching in the field by serious artists and seen as the ideal medium for hobbyists and beginners, watercolour has always had a bit of a bad rep. But although these things are true to an extent, they are also roundly challenged by Tate Britain’s latest exhibition, which re-explores watercolour’s evolution through the history of art.
The exhibition makes a good case for expanding what we might class at watercolour art, encompassing medieval illuminated manuscripts, which might not normally be considered as watercolour, and medical and natural history illustration, which are not usually included in the canon of Western art history. It also offers up some compelling examples of contemporary uses of the medium, by artists such as Callum Innes and Tracey Emin. But ultimately, and not unsurprisingly, the curators aren’t able to overturn the single plain fact: that the greatest achievements in watercolour were made during its Golden Age in the late 18th and early 19th century by two the greatest watercolourists working at the time, Thomas Girtin and JMW Turner.