ART / Exhibitions: A brush with imperial power: The origins of the British water-colour are less bucolic than bellicose. Iain Gale reports

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The Independent Culture
The water-colour, and in particular the topographical water-colour, is the most British of art forms. Its very name speaks of tranquility and it goes hand in hand with the other 'national institutions' of tea-drinking, a love of horses and dogs and the sense of fair play. It is composed, attractive and altogether safe.

But behind the English water- colour's understatement lies a hidden truth. For all its peaceful appearance, it has its roots in those other, now unfashionable, 'Great British' institutions, war, conquest and imperialism. The landscape water-colour as we know it is the descendant of what was originally a tool of our expansionist forefathers, which throughout its 100-year evolution, despite changes of style and purpose, retained its essential function of recapturing the appearance or essence of a particular place. A number of current and forthcoming exhibitions give clues to its origins and development. In January the Royal Academy opens its exhibition 'The Great Age of British Water-colours'. Amid the water- colourists' visual richness it is all too easy to forget that the period covered by the show, 1750 to 1880, was also the great age of British overseas expansion.

The two artists generally accepted to be the fathers of the British landscape water-colour, the brothers Thomas and Paul Sandby, both had a hand in the genre's warlike origins. Thomas Sandby (1723-98) was a military draughtsman, employed by the Royal Ordnance to produce accurate records of terrain across Britain and the Continent that would enable Britain's armies to fight more efficiently. Water-colour was the ideal medium for such a task. Unlike oil paints at this period (the tube was not yet invented) water-colour was easily transportable and quick to use. In 1746, after the battle of Culloden, Thomas Sandby followed the Duke of Cumberland's victorious army recording the landscape of the Scottish Highlands. His brother Paul (1730-1809) also worked for the military, as a drawing master at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich from 1768. This was the first wave of Britain's imperial expansion, during and after the Seven Years War (1756- 63), and a number of the early water-colourists were soldiers.

But in these strongly patriotic times even the civilian population was infected by the aggressive spirit. If there was a new land to be explored you could be sure that a water-colour artist would be there to paint it. When in 1776 Captain James Cook made his celebrated voyage to the South Seas, he took with him the artist John Weber. Ten years later Thomas Daniell was in India recording the country's ancient monuments at the same time as the British were laying the foundations of their Raj.

Nor did the expansionist urge limit itself to such exotic conquests. This was the age of the Grand Tour, in which the British aristocracy's jeunesse doree toured France, Italy and Greece, returning laden with such 'souvenirs' as the Elgin marbles. If the connoisseur was unable to carry off the real thing, he was determined at least to have its image. With the acquisitive passion of a camera- clicking modern tourist, the water- colourist gathered likenesses of churches and castles, gorges and piazzas. Painters such as William Pars and John 'Warwick' Smith became an important part of a nobleman's entourage. Notably, Alexander Cozens travelled to Switzerland with his employer William Beckford.

By the late 18th century, although a domestic school of water-colourists painting the English countryside had emerged, British artists were still being tempted abroad in numbers by the heady combination of dramatic terrain, architectural heritage and that clear southern light which on their return would transfigure images of their native landscape. By 1800 there were British water-colour artists at work across Europe, while others followed British armies through Canada and India. Britain's private and public galleries filled up with countless views of those places visited either by the invading army or the tourist. There were Indian palaces, Italian ruins, oriental bazaars and Pacific islands. Gradually, artists such as John Robert Cozens moved from the strictly topographical to a more enquiring approach to landscape which, with the advent of full-blown Romanticism, grew into a deeper examination of nature. By the turn of the century Turner was producing water-colours that were no longer simple depictions of terrain. They were memories of experience. When he painted the Falls of Reichenbach in 1804, Turner was not simply a tourist painting a picturesquely romantic view as the Cozenses might have done. Captivated by the majesty of the Alpine landscape he terrified his audience with the force of nature.

Seen in their wider historical context Turner's forays into Europe at this time become even more interesting. This was the period of the Napoleonic wars (1796-1815) during which France, and much of the rest of continental Europe, was inaccessible. The British public's attention was focused daily on the news from Europe where the troops of Britain and her allies were attempting to defeat Napoleon. It helped to have a visual image, and in the inquisitive climate during and after the war the topographical water- colour underwent a revival in the work of such artists as Samuel Prout, Thomas Shotter Boys, William Callow and R P Bonington.

Italy held a particular appeal for the British who might here, as Turner did, combine a passion for the antique with romantic sentiment. And there was something else about Italy. The Empire- building British had become preoccupied with a minute examination of the departed empires of Rome and Venice. This obsession was best dealt with by Turner's apologist John Ruskin, who, at the height of Victorian expansionism wrote in his Stones of Venice: 'Since the first dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones . . . have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruin; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction .' To Ruskin it seemed that the study of the art of the Venetians, and of other Italian pre-Renaissance civilisations, might help Britain preserve her own imperial greatness. Thus he explored ruins and churches throughout Italy, depicting in immaculate detail their carvings and decorations. In particular, Ruskin made seven visits to Tuscany between 1840 and 1882, intending to bring back enough material to establish in Sheffield a collection of water-colours and artefacts which would educate the British people. In Ruskin's hands, once again the raison d'etre of the water-colour had undergone a change, to that of archaeological record. At the same time, however, it had returned to its topographical roots. For Ruskin, the supporter of the romantic water-colours of Turner, his own water-colours (on view at the Accademia Italiana from January) were simply an aide-memoire. Their role, he wrote was 'almost servile veracity' and his primary aim was to record for posterity. But seen within its Victorian imperial context Ruskin's achievement in water-colour nods towards the original impetus which created the English water- colour tradition. As he wrote in The Crown of Wild Olives in 1866:

'There is no great art possible to a nation but that which is based on battle'.

British Water-colours at the Royal Academy 15 Jan-12 Apr 1993; Ruskin and Tuscany, Accademia Italiana 8 Jan-7 Feb 1993; Artists in Rome, National Gallery of Scotland to 31 Jan; Photographs of Ruskin's Venice, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh to 14 Mar.

(Photographs omitted)