ART MARKET / A British Love affair: 1993, year of the watercolour, offers unique opportunities to see great work in a favourite medium. Many may be tempted to buy, too

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THE ENGLISH watercolour is the kind of art that English people really like. They are acting out of character when they buy the avant-garde; they can't afford Old Masters or Impressionists. But the dear old watercolour, of the 18th, 19th or even 20th century, directly reflects a national attachment to nostalgia and rusticity. Our Secretary of State for National Heritage, Peter Brooke, has been collecting watercolours since the 1960s.

It is not, however, a field much considered by Britain's small band of millionaire collectors. Watercolours are popular with the professional classes whose cash is limited. You can get something nice for pounds 500, a good work by a famous name for pounds 3,500 and masterpieces for between pounds 12,000 and pounds 25,000. It's only if you insist on a famous name and superlative quality that you have to think in six figures. The top auction prices on record are pounds 616,000 for a Gainsborough and pounds 473,000 for a Turner; at this level Japanese collectors compete with American museums.

For the next two months - until 12 April - an exhibition called 'The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880' is running at the Royal Academy: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the very best of the genre gathered under one roof from private collections and museums all over the world. Such an expensive and comprehensive operation will presumably not be embarked upon again for decades, if ever. There is also an exhibition at the Leeds City Art Gallery called 'Cotmania and Mr Kitson', celebrating the superb collection of watercolours by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) formed by Sidney Kitson in the 1930s. Cotman was one of the 'greats', the leading light of the Norwich school who translated English landscape into simple flat washes of colour and a geometric interplay of planes. Furthermore, an exhibition of Victorian landscape watercolours, currently on show at the Yale Center for British Art in America, is coming to the Birmingham City Art Gallery in February.

When Peter Brooke opened the 'World of Drawings and Watercolours' fair at the Park Lane Hotel earlier this month, he described 1993 as an annus mirabilis for the watercolour. There are unique opportunities to see, learn and love; many people may start wondering whether to buy. It is an appropriate moment to look at the watercolour market.

Watercolour painting began to be a British speciality in the late 18th century. Grand Tourists and other travellers started to take watercolour painters with them to paint the picturesque scenes they visited. William Alexander, for instance, accompanied the first British embassy to China, while John Robert Cozens accompanied the famous connoisseur Payne Knight to Italy and painted blue-grey, poetic vistas which profoundly influenced the next generation and gave him a reputation as the father of British watercolour landscape. A great blossoming followed, including artists such as Turner, Girtin, and Bonington, who spanned the turn of the century. This is what the exhibition at the Royal Academy is primarily about. In the 1950s watercolours of this period could be bought for between pounds 5 and pounds 200 and the first collecting boom, concentrated among the British middle classes, was born. Four or five collectors, Leonard Duke, Sidney Kitson and Sir John Witt among them, bought with singleminded passion, amassing several hundred watercolours apiece.

Paul Mellon changed all that. The son of Andrew Mellon, who founded the Washington National Gallery, he was enormously rich, half-English and a devoted Anglophile. Beginning in 1960, he bought on a prodigious scale, and was able to give some 8,000 watercolours to the Yale Center for British Art, which he built, filled with art and opened in 1977. His purchases drove prices upwards. By the mid-1970s watercolours of the golden age had become too expensive for most British collectors.

This did not diminish British buyers' enthusiasm, but they began to switch to Victorian watercolours. The new taste for Victorian paintings and drawings was pioneered by the London dealer Jeremy Maas, who in 1969 published a book called Victorian Painters, the first scholarly reassessment of the period. His gallery in Clifford Street, now run by his son, is still a treasure house of good Victorian drawings.

The enormous output of watercolours in the 19th century, including the work of amateurs as well as professionals, offered a vast pool to fish in, initially at very modest prices. The 1980s, however, saw a boom in sales. New, specialist galleries opened up all over the country, driving the price of minor works from a fiver to pounds 200- pounds 600. Paintings by the most popular and decorative artists of the period, such as Myles Birket Foster, who painted highly detailed rustic scenes, and Helen Allingham, who specialised in cottagers' gardens - she and her followers are known as the 'jolly hollyhocks school' - have been driven to prices which far exceed comparable artists of the golden age - Copley Fielding, for example, or David Cox.

At the watercolour fair, Bill Thompson's Albany Gallery of Bury Street, St James's, was showing a range of splendid golden age watercolours including a ravishing Cox entitled Rainbow over the Thames Estuary with Two Figures Watching the Ships at pounds 9,500; the Polak Gallery of King Street, St James's, had marvellous Victorian drawings including a masterpiece by Birket Foster, Gathering Primroses, at pounds 14,000.

As prices for good Victorian watercolours soared out of reach, British collectors began to switch to the work of contemporary watercolourists working in traditional styles. 'There has been a great

wave of contemporary collecting over the last three or four years,' says Anthony Spink of Spink & Sons, King Street. Many galleries are now showing today's good, traditional draughtsmen, along with 18th and 19th-century masters; they include Spink, Agnew, the Maas Gallery and the Fine Art Society in central London. Brian Sinfield, who has a gallery in Burford showing both old and new watercolourists, tells me that all the Cotswold dealers who have traditionally dealt in early watercolours are now showing and selling contemporary works. Even in this field prices can range from pounds 500 to pounds 12,000, but it offers some of the best value for money if you are looking for decorative work combined with good draughtsmanship.

The recession has, however, gone some way towards altering the pattern. 'The market in early watercolours has been harder hit than oils,' according to Henry Wemyss of Sotheby's. A lot of Lloyd's names used to buy in this field; they don't appear to be selling yet, but their buying has dried up. The work of some 18th-century draughtsmen, such as Thornhill or Rysbrack, is cheaper today than it was in the 1960s; collectors tend to go for colour and overlook pencil or ink drawings. But good minor works of the golden age are currently cheaper than high Victorian or Edwardian. Dealers cannot afford to cut their prices too drastically; if you have pounds 500 or so to spend, try the watercolour sales at Sotheby's, Christie's, Phillips and Bonhams.

But dealers often sell little things at remarkably low prices. At the watercolour fair, the Martyn Gregory Gallery of Bury Street, St James's, had a tiny but brilliant drawing of Camels in the Desert by the golden age artist Edward William Cooke, priced at pounds 125.-

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