What is it about the Brits and watercolour painting? Like cricket and Christmas puddings, and the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, it might seem to be one of those quirky national obsessions, slightly mystifying to outsiders. It’s the only art medium that has been the subject of a popular, long-running television programme, Watercolour Challenge; it’s much harder to imagine “Collage Challenge” or “Britain’s Got Linocut Talent”.
Go to local art society exhibitions in any town or village, and you are likely to encounter watercolours by the yard. All of which might encourage the notion that watercolour is (a) a medium especially suited to amateurs and (b) that it was a British invention.
Actually, neither is altogether true. Agreed, watercolour was the medium in which some of the greatest British painters produced extraordinary work. Of the series of 10 finished watercolours JMW Turner painted in 1842, the critic John Ruskin wrote: “Turner had never made any drawings like these before, and never made any like them again. He is not showing his hand in these, but his heart.” One of those Turners was The Blue Rigi that sold for £5.8 million in 2006, and was later bought by Tate Britain. David Hockney made several series of watercolours in the early part of the last decade, explaining – in words that echo Ruskin’s – that he wanted to use a medium that reflected the old Chinese saying that, for a good painting, you need three things: the hand, the eye and the heart (two won’t do). In watercolour, you could see “the hand flowing”. It’s true, in his case at least.