EXHIBITIONS / From modest shires imperialism flows: Is there a special relationship between the British and the art of watercolour? The Royal Academy seems to think so

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'POMMY bastard nature poetry,' they say Down Under, thus neatly dismissing large areas of English literature, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they feel the same way about English watercolours. Certainly no country appreciates our watercolour tradition in the way that we do. There seems to be an element of national self-love in our devotion.

Viewed from the larger perspectives of world art, watercolours seem inescapably bound to the realm of minor art. Can we really find greatness in them?

One person who does is Andrew Wilton, who is keeper of the British collection at the Tate Gallery and who, with Anne Lyles, has organised The Great Age of British Watercolours at the Royal Academy. Wilton, in his catalogue, asks why there was such a flowering of this art at the beginning of the 19th century and replies that 'there was a special relationship between the British character and the medium of watercolour'. (Do I hear sounds of agreement from Australians?) And then, Wilton adds, we must think of the 'unique beauty of the British landscape' and furthermore of the 'superabundance of bored young ladies requiring drawing masters'.

However, Wilton then asserts, such matters 'cannot adequately account for the profound conceptual seriousness with which watercolour was pursued'. This we are to associate with 'national purpose', with 'the first great expansion of Britain's imperial interests worldwide, with the Seven Years War and the confident heyday of the East India Company'. Strange that these modest landscapes of the shires are now seen as part of the imperial spirit; and how unusual it is to find such patriotism as part of an art exhibition] Perhaps it has something to do with working at the Tate.

Wilton loves his watercolours so much that he is prone to over-interpret them. And they are indeed lovable. Deft, calm, even-tempered, quietly rejoicing in fields, farms, woods and weather, looking in the crannies of abbeys and castles, following rivers and gazing at clouds, the watercolourist is the most amiable of artists. Watercolours are rarely forced or overblown. They most often succeed when we observe delicacy or restraint. One examines them from about the same distance that one reads a book. So good watercolours feel like bright little treasures of observation.

All this is beautifully apparent in the Royal Academy exhibition, where Wilton has assembled the most persuasive survey of classic watercolour art we are ever likely to see. He has taken this period to be from 1750 to 1880, and there are 300 works. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is a demanding exhibition. Watercolours are full of charm but they also require study. In particular, one likes to examine the technique of each work. Watercolour insists that one looks at the way that it was made, and this turns out to be one of the strengths of the art.

From the first, with the perfect dabs of Alexander Cozens, this is an exhibition about touch, the personal handwriting of brush and wash. Occasionally, especially among the architectural draughtsmen, there's an artist who excites by use of individual, expressive line. But mostly it's the relation of brush to paper that counts - the quick softness of the technique, the miraculous ability of some watercolourists to seem both wet and dry at the same time. William Gilpin has this gift, Gainsborough apparently not. Francis Towne has it, and John Robert Cozens. Peter de Wint, Constable, Bonnington and David Cox have it; but Ruskin only occasionally, and the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers not at all.

Watercolourists are either light or heavy-handed, and it is noticeable that the show starts light and becomes heavier, especially after mid-Victorian times. The first master of lightness was John Sell Cotman, mostly represented at the Royal Academy by familiar works that still impress by their lucidity and compositional strength, the virtues of his Chirk Aqueduct of 1806 and his Ploughed Field of a couple of years later. I do think, though, that Cotman declined in his later career; and that the general decline of watercolour is the underlying theme, never explicitly stated, of the whole exhibition.

Watercolour, like landscape painting in general, had nowhere to go after the mid-19th century - the time of the invention of Pre-Raphaelitism in 1848 and Turner's death in 1851. That leaves 30 years in Wilton's account. They are unconvincingly filled. What his show does reveal is the supremacy of Turner, who had mastery of every aspect of watercolour and a unique ability to give the medium cultural themes beyond nostalgia and the picturesque.

Normally, given the Tate's collection, we see Turner by himself and in too much quantity. Now, side by side with other artists, he is supreme. First, technically. Light or heavy just as he wished, Turner gave virtuosity to the medium. He could be ethereal, or introduce the weight and authority of oil painting. Sometimes he introduces the precise detail of a miniaturist. Then he expands his pictures' scope, making them fly beyond their physical limits. He scrapes at the previously sacrosanct surface. No other watercolourist is so genuinely a colourist. Turner's drawing also has exciting contrasts between idealism, taken from Italian sources, and the mundane.

Secondly, as a thoughtful artist. Turner had more ideas in his head than he could ever put into art and therefore his pictures are bafflingly ruminative. He was the modern tragedian of landscape, as Ruskin, writing Modern Painters in the Forties and Fifties, was finally obliged to recognise. Both artist and critic were obsessed with the fall of empires.

Both men, Wilton should have noticed, saw death in imperialism. Ruskin also detected the signs of national fall in the taste of the bourgeoisie. True to the history of the institutions, the Royal Academy show ends with a section called 'The Exhibition Watercolour', works made in the medium that were designed to compete with paintings in oil and were submitted to annual exhibitions at Burlington House. This makes for an ugly gallery, everything misjudged both in size and sentiment.

I know why. This is when watercolour joined Victorian art. Also, this is when watercolour introduced people and their doings. But the medium was never suited to portraiture or theatre. It thrived on the still, atmospheric vision of landscape. The Pre-Raphaelites, who on the whole did not admire Turner, brought vivid social action and emotion to new art.

And now we see that the most technically talented of them, Millais and Holman Hunt, had no real feeling for watercolour at all. They were oil men, and also social careerists. In the later years, Whistler and the underrated Albert Goodwin are interesting, neither were careerists in the Royal Academy sense. But they seem rather lonely - and because of the absence of people in their art, the best early watercolourists seem rather lonely too.

Royal Academy, daily, 10am-6pm, to 12 April.

(Photographs omitted)