Watercolour, Tate Britain, London

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

While the portability of the paintbox suits nature painting, watercolour can do much more. But is that really news?

Alan Bennett recalled once ringing Peter Cook to ask him to dinner, at the couple's request, with Prince Andrew and the then Sarah Ferguson.

Cook, unfazed, said, "I'll just have to look at my diary, Alan." There were off-phone noises, as of pages being turned; then Cook came back on the line. "Oh dear," he drawled. "I find I'm watching television that evening." And so to Watercolour at Tate Britain.

Watercolour. Well. The assumption behind the bald title of this show is that we all know what it means, or at least what it implies. It means vases of physalis – no, of primulas – painted by Welsh spinster sub-postmistresses for shows in village halls. It means Prince Andrew's older brother doing runny views of lochs and everyone saying how good they are. It means jam jars of clouded water with hairless brushes in them, and ... so on. An evening in watching the telly would be infinitely preferable to a show called Watercolour. Even an evening watching Friends.

Of course, we all know this isn't true, really, because we've been to art galleries and seen Turner and Blake. You can't come away from Blake's etched-and-washed Ancient of Days thinking that watercolours are the painterly equivalent of lavender sachets. This knowledge rather spoils the surprise.

For the hope at Tate Britain is that we will go around the show squealing, at intervals, "A watercolour! Surely not!", to which end the curators have gone for works in some way untypical of the medium. One of the points of watercolour is portability. You can't put an easel and palette in your pocket and walk up a hill; you can a box of watercolours and a sketch-pad. As a result, watercolours are often small and of hills. Alive to this problem, the curators of Watercolour have gone to great lengths to avoid small, hilly works. There is only one picture of primroses, by William Henry Hunt, and no physalis at all that I could find.

Instead, there are epically big pictures, done in that grand, finished style we more obviously associate with oil paint. A case in point is John Varley's The Suburbs of an Ancient City which looks, at first glance, like a Poussin. Why Varley should have chosen to paint a classical scene in watercolour is an interesting question: from the look of the work, he was captivated by Poussin's lemon sun, and watercolour is famously good for rendering light. From the point of view of this show, though, Varley's picture defies our expectations of watercolour in being big and formal. Or at least it defies the Tate's expectations of our expectations, which is not quite the same thing.

So, too, with Arthur Melville's luscious Blue Night, Venice. Lusciousness is not a quality we are expected to associate with watercolour, any more than we do Varley's grandeur. The miracle of Melville's work is in the blue saturation of its sky, a depth and intensity of colour it is hard to imagine coming out of a watercolour box. How did Melville do it? I have no idea. In the context of this show, though, the point of his work is its oddness, its status as a watercolour that doesn't look like one.

Other things we don't expect of a show called Watercolour are grittiness and contemporaneity. Herbert Cole's Private Green records, in livid detail, the surgical reconstruction of the face of a trooper wounded in the Great War. As to modernity, the exhibition's last room is given over to works by the likes of Tracey Emin and Peter Doig. For both, the appeal of watercolour seems to be that its translucence and unfashionableness evoke times past, a sense of loss. Both in its look and in the way the artists think of it, the medium encompasses death.

The problems with all of this are pretty obvious. The Tate tries to set up watercolour as an Aunt Sally, a thing old and lacy and smelling of 4711. Like any good Aunt Sally, the aim is to knock it down – to reveal, through untypical works, that many watercolours are not like watercolours at all; that they are rich and modern and big. This sends out the unfortunate message that typical watercolours are thin and archaic and small, also rather boring.

To compound the error, the curators play fast and loose with their definitions, classifying as watercolour any medium in which water plays a part. Is gouache really watercolour? Acrylic? Washed ink? The real problem, though, is that this show assumes that people who go to galleries are a bit thick – that they won't have seen watercolours by (say) Turner and Blake and worked out for themselves that they can be grand and experimental. Not very flattering, really.

To 21 Aug (020-7887 8888)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent sees the National Gallery's Jan Gossaert show

Art Choice

See John Stezaker's scissor skills at the Whitechapel Gallery, east London (to 18 Mar). His precise, subversive, image-slicing takes cut'n'paste to a new level. The Tate's Art in Yorkshire project makes its first big splash with David Hockney's 40ft-long painting, Bigger Trees Near Warter (that's be a village, not a typo) at York Art Gallery (to 12 Jun).

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?