Late Georgian watercolors (c.1800-c.1835) reflect the dominant artistic styles during and after the Regency period of George IV (1762-1830) — who acted as regent from 1811 to 1820 during the last madness of George III (1738-1820), then as royal art patron and regal libertine in the decade after. This was a time of great ferment and change in England: an era of rapid industrialization, new wealth and social dislocation; the height of the Romantic movement and England's colonial power; an age of eclectic but often neoclassical styles in fashion, decor, and architecture.

The artists described on this page (and their peers) did not easily understand or adopt the idiosyncratic innovations of J.M.W. Turner. Instead, many looked back to the broadly painted, serene works of Thomas Girtin, adapted to create a conservative, neoclassical style often mixed with discrete touches of romanticism. As a group, these painters benefited from the many improvements in watercolor papers and paints, the increasing demand for drawing masters, and the insatiable and lucrative middle class market for lithographs and engraved illustrations.

In tandem with these trends, several watercolor societies appeared in England at the beginning of the 19th century. The first was actually the Society of Artists, founded in 1761 as the exhibiting arm of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (Society of Arts, founded in 1754). These first watercolor exhibitions, held in the period 1760-83, marked a major change in the status of the watercolor as an artwork in its own right, rather than as a sketch to be translated by engravers into prints for publication. Unfortunately, within two years the Society of Artists was fractured by personal and institutional rivalries into two weak and competing art societies, which both disappeared by 1783, and the Royal Academy of Arts, founded in 1768, which exists to this day.

Under the leadership of its president Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), the Royal Academy quickly evolved into a highly prestigious but hidebound institution committed to train new artists but also, like the older French and Italian academies, to dictate on matters of taste, style and subject matter. The net effect of its esthetic rules and membership criteria was to stifle the innovative artistry of contemporaries like Thomas Gainsborough or William Blake, and to nurture the kind of lapdog subservience to "taste" and institutional status that lamed the art of the Victorian era. Though painters such as Paul Sandby had been among the Academy's founding members, by the turn of the 19th century watercolors were blatantly disparaged in its annual exhibitions, categorized as a type of drawing and sometimes displayed in the same dimly lit room used to show sculptures (the lighting favored the marbles, not the paintings). In fact, a painter primarily in watercolors did not gain election to the Royal Academy until 1943.

In reaction, the Society of Painters in Water-Colours was founded in 1804 (and relaunched in 1820, after allowing display of oil paintings at the exhibitions of 1813-19). (A rump society, the Associated Artists in Water-Colours, was active briefly from 1808-12.) Its charter was to raise the status of watercolor painters, and it did this by asserting the status of watercolors as paintings rather than mere "drawings," by encouraging the technical and artistic developments necessary to make watercolor painting a medium equal to oils, and by organizing exhibitions where artists could display works that would attract new commissions. Starting at this time, watercolors were increasingly displayed in the large gilt frames used for paintings, rather than the flat cardboard frame traditional for portfolio drawings. The Society changed its name in 1881 to the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours, and was granted a patent to become the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS) in 1905, the title it retains today. In the Victorian era it was commonly referred to as the Old Water-Colour Society (OWCS) to distinguish it from the New Society of Painters in Water-Colours, founded in 1832 and later called the Institute of Painters in Water-Colours (1863) and finally the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours (1883). This New Water-Colour Society (NWCS), widely perceived as less prestigious than the Old, was founded to encourage the artistic innovation and wider membership that many artists and critics felt was lacking in the Old Society. However, the dominant position of the Royal Academy in the art hierarchy forced both societies to adopt the same hidebound and exclusive policies in their ambition to be viewed as "serious" rather than dilettante institutions.



In the Regency period the status of a painter was increasingly affected by the market for collectible art among the prosperous urban middle class. The societies initiated annual watercolor exhibitions which at their height were newsworthy and well attended, and profitable for society members. Visitors could purchase paintings directly from the artists, often at reasonable prices; by their exclusive membership policies and display practices, the societies attempted to promote and protect the artistic status (and market valuation) of their members' paintings. At this time, too, the most prominent artists began to organize their own exhibitions in private art galleries or rented spaces, and to work through a small number of art brokers. These exhibitions and market innovations defined a new art product between cheap lithographs and expensive oils, and formed a transition between the patronage art system of the 18th century and the consumer art market of professional galleries and art auctions that became dominant in the Victorian period.

There is no better success story within this system than Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding (1787-1855), who joined the Old Society in 1810 and was its president for a quarter century (from 1831 to his death). Born in Halifax but raised in London and the Lake District, Copley Fielding was already a drawing master in Liverpool in 1807. In 1809 he settled in London and studied under John Varley, and married Varley's sister-in-law. To accommodate his wife's poor health, he relocated to the fashionable beach resort of Brighton in 1831 and added seascapes to his repertoire. He became rich through his huge production of paintings, which all sold quickly despite their often hackneyed quality and repetitive themes. The Close of Day (1853, 55x96cm) incorporates many cliches from classical landscape tradition originated by Claude Lorrain, adding Turner's particular intensity of late afternoon light (which even erases most of the foreground shadows). But Turner's ability to thrust us into the moment of the image is completely absent. Copley Fielding's work possesses to an extreme degree the attribute of finish, the painstaking and stifling perfection of surface and visual effect that was much prized by Regency and Victorian art consumers. A highly idealized view of Richmond Castle in Yorkshire (the same locale painted a decade before, at the same time of day but from the opposite point of view, by J.M.W. Turner), everything about this image is contrived as an artistic tour de force — especially that glowing sky, built up of many layers of indian yellow, rose madder and cobalt blue, which was one of Copley Fielding's most widely admired specialties. Copley Fielding does not ask us to emotionally enter this painting; the glossy surface and irreal light instead push us toward a conventionalized esthetic response, reinforced by the threadbare visual cliches that were designed to appeal to the status driven art purchaser. With that hidebound Old Society yearning for respectability, he wants us to admire what he has made — just as the Victorian collector of this work, often as not among the new middle class who greatly valued labor and craftsmanship, would want us to admire the fine product that he had acquired by virtue of his own industry and cleverness.

If the classical style was often used to pander to the new art collector, it was also infused with genuine poetry by a few artists. The son of a Reading drawing master, William Havell (1782-1857) was a founding member of the Old Water-Colour Society in 1804. He traveled North Wales in 1802-03 and settled in the Lake District (northeast England) for a year in 1807. He contributed illustrations to several periodicals and a series of his paintings was published in aquatint as Picturesque Views of the River Thames (1812). He signed on to accompany Lord Amherst's embassy to China in 1816, but abandoned this venture during a stop in Macao, then spent the next eight years in India painting portraits and landscapes in watercolor. He rejoined the Old Society when he returned to London in 1827, but after 1830 painted exclusively in oils. Havell is a classicizing painter with more individuality and romantic tendencies than most of his contemporaries. His Windermere (1811, 25x34cm) is a recognizably poetic landscape in the Claudean tradition, but made piquant by Havell's restricted and unusual palette of oranges, greens and blue violet — a color scheme that reappears in some Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Many of the Claudean cliches can still be identified — dark foreground, check; small figures, winding river, rolling hills, misty horizon, check — but these are softened and integrated in a way that makes this painting original rather than blandly derivative. Havell opens the palette to richer greens and oranges by bringing the light from the side of the painting rather than the back, and uses a skillful alternation of muted warm and cool hues (somewhat like the classical system of alternating light and dark planes, but applied to adjacent objects such as the trees in the middle distance) to assist in defining the forms through the aerial perspective. The energetic rendering of trees, and the tasteful variation in their silhouettes, give the picture individuality and energy. The lone traveler stooping to drink from a pure stream, and the ascending line of birds high in the sky, suggest a rejuvenating atmosphere of adventure and freedom in the bond between man and nature.

A sky more familiar from the landscapes of German and Scandanavian romantic painters appears in the works of William Turner of Oxford (1784-1849). Turner left his native Oxfordshire in 1804 and studied for several years under John Varley, exhibiting briefly at the Royal Academy before joining the Old Water-Colour Society in 1808. His early works are dark and thrillingly dramatic, and include magnificent designs that recall renaissance tapestries and the paintings of Salvator Rosa. As he built a successful career as a drawing master in Oxford, he gradually expanded his range of subjects through many sketching tours of England: starting with the river meadows along the Cherwell in Oxford, to the Avon and Thames valleys, the Lake District (1814), the New Forest in Hampshire (1820's) and the Sussex Downs (1830's). At the same time his style changed to become more placid, and many of his late paintings seem to float in a timeless moment of summer noon or late afternoon. Halmaker Mill, near Chichester, Sussex (c.1837, 52x75cm) is one of these late works, and shows Turner's late style at its best. Nothing of the Claudean landscape cliches remain, but the mood is still restrained and contemplative. A subtly elegaic effect arises in the level horizon, compressed landscape planes, and subdued color contrasts between violet, yellow and tawny brown. The amount of space devoted to the sky, the inclusion of a rustic "monument" (the windmill), and the lack of visual variety in the foreground, distant landscape or sky all suggest a nostalgia not for a classical past but simply for open space and unpolluted air — things that a contemporary urban art consumer might increasingly want to contemplate in the confines of their urban homes.

I have a special affection for John Varley (1778-1842), a key figure in the development of English watercolors. Born to a large and impoverished family (he was the younger brother of the architect and watercolor painter Cornelius Varley), John was apprenticed to a law stationer but taught himself to draw during delinquent and barefoot hikes outside of London. He studied drawing in the evenings with Joseph Barrow, who took him on a sketching tour to Peterborough (East Anglia) and, in those few weeks of intensive study, launched Varley on his artistic career. He began exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1798, made sketching tours of Wales in 1798-1802, joined the Munro "academy" in 1800, and was a founding member of the Old Water-Colour Society in 1804. By that time Varley had established a popular reputation as a drawing master, and was painting in a style much influenced by Thomas Girtin. Early on, he led the change in taste toward more humble subjects that departed from the grandiose mood of romantic landscapes and the architectural relics of the picturesque. Varley turned instead toward commonplace urban and village locales, filled with the details of everyday life. His Market Place at Leominster, Hereford (1801, 28x40cm) shows a town square that serves as playing field to children and dogs. The palette of muted, dusty earth colors, carried even into the dull sky (once tinted with indigo, which has completely faded), emphasizes the lack of topographic monumentality and picturesque sentiment. Varley brings the scene to life with an especially deft handling of skewed facades along the street, using the low angle of view and precise linear perspective he learned from the etchings in A Picturesque Tour through the Cities of London and Westminster, published in the 1790's by the topographer Thomas Malton Jr. (1748-1804). He creates masterful hue and value variations within his limited palette (for example, the warm sienna of the far building contrasted to the greenish and dark brown umbers in the buildings on either side), and provides visual interest in the complex pattern of windows, pavingstones and rooftops along both sides of the street. The ornate facade of the central building gives the painting a piquant accent of local color: there is much in Varley's approach that Samuel Prout adopted in his paintings of historic Continental towns.

Varley was a remarkable personality — widely known for his enormous build and unrestrained enthusiasm for astrology and spiritualism, and also for his feverish industry before major watercolor exhibitions. (He would crank out dozens of paintings in a few weeks, which came to be known as "Varley's hot rolls.") But he was also a remarkable innovator. His Harlech Castle and Tygwyn Ferry (1804, 39x52cm) resembles Girtin's landscape studies of Wales from around 1800, but the main features of Girtin's style have been simplified and systematized to pay homage to the atmospheric volume of landscape space. Varley perfected the method of broad, flat washes that Girtin developed, and that apparently had a very strong effect on the middle style of John Sell Cotman and many painters in the Old Society. But he wasn't all simplification, and one of his summer sketches of a Wales mountain sunrise (dated with the hour "3 o'clock in the morning") testifies to his lifelong interest in painting en plein air to achieve truthful observations of nature. Varley is known for his pithy teaching aphorisms — "Every painting must have a look here," or "Nature wants cooking" — which make him sound like Ed Whitney in a previous life, and he published some of the first watercolor painting manuals, including the important Treatise on the Principles of Landscape Design (1816-18), which lays out Varley's schematic approach to painting technique and composition. Central to his teaching was a focus on light: "Great principles of unity compel us to consider the effect of sunny daylight as constituting the subject, landscape acting here as a second consideration and vehicle for the light." He also ran a boisterous teaching studio, somewhat in the style of his mentor Dr. Munro but with much less decorum: most days ended in a boxing match in which the truly massive Varley somehow managed to succumb to his best drawing pupils. There is a troubled, Dickensian quality to Varley's later life — he was in and out of prison for debt, overwhelmed by teaching commitments, burdened by eight children and a first wife who despised him (she died in 1824), and to cap it all his studio burned down in 1825. But he redeemed his career with a happy second marriage to Delvalle Lowry (who was half his age), and an exaggerated, classicizing style of painting that seems kitschy to modern eyes but was quite successful in its day. (Ah, Micawber in Australia!) By his tireless work as a watercolor society organizer, his popular and frequent contributions to annual watercolor exhibitions, his inspiring role as teacher to hundreds of drawing students and thousands of painting manual readers, and his personal generosity and mentoring to dozens of aspiring professional painters (including John Sell Cotman, Anthony Copley Fielding, William Turner, Peter De Wint, David Cox, William Henry Hunt and John Linnell), Varley was in many ways one of the most important artists of his age. His gift was to give.

With the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, the decade of social upheaval and war that began with the French Revolution in 1789 reached an intermission, and the age of modern tourism began when more than 6,000 English tourists flocked to Europe to see the cities, the "local types" in costume, and the plundered Italian art on display in the Louvre. This stampede (and a similar rush after the final French defeat at Waterloo in 1815) was matched by an avid interest in books describing foreign places, illustrated with engravings of watercolors drawn on location, for the professional and business readers of the new British industrial economy. Samuel Prout (1782-1857) was most famous for these travel paintings. Born in Plymouth, Prout was persuaded by the antiquary John Britton to move to London and contribute to his Beauties of England and Wales (1803-13). Prout built a reputation as drawing master in London and in his career published several watercolor drawing instruction manuals. He became an associate of the Old Water-Colour Society in 1817; in that year he first visited the Continent in search of topographical subjects, and from 1820-46, though afflicted by frequent migraine headaches, he energetically painted all the popular topographical venues in Normandy, the Low Countries, the Rhine Valley, Switzerland and Venice in a style that remained unchanged his whole life. His works were very popular (John Ruskin was a fervent admirer), sold well, and were widely distributed as engravings and lithographs. A View of Strasbourg (c.1822, 62x48cm) is a good example of his approach: the easily recognizable historical monument (the enormous red sandstone tower of the Notre-Dame cathedral) is used as the backdrop to a focus on everyday life. The people in the street are engaged in convincing everyday activities (drawing water, shopping, carrying fuel), the whole rendered primarily in ochre, umber and pale violet, gently accented by glimpses of saturated red, yellow and blue in the costumes. Prout was especially known for his wiggly, nervously mannered drawing line, which was especially effective at conveying the pocked, crumbling surfaces of old stone and wood structures. At a period when the face of London was being aggressively transformed by the modern stucco facades of the Royal architect John Nash's (1752-1835) urban renewal projects, Prout's medieval facades and quaint regional costumes provided a tasty closing variation on the charm of picturesque roughness and variety.

See also Victorian watercolors.

Martin Hardie's superb study of watercolor painting devotes an entire volume to the painters mentioned here and their colleagues: Water-Colour Painting in Britain: II. The Romantic Period (Batsford, 1967). There is a beautiful selection of paintings in The Great Age of British Watercolours by Andrew Litton and Anne Lyles (Prestel, 1993). Two excellent overviews that include some of the artists mentioned here are Victorian Landscape Watercolors by Scott Wilcox and Christopher Newall (Hudson Hills, 1992), and Victorian Watercolors by Christopher Newall (Phaidon, 1987). All these texts point to many other monographs and exhibition catalogs on the painters and drawing masters of this period.