Page images
PDF
EPUB

LIGHT AND WATER-COLOURS.

.

A REPLY.

It would have been far from my wish to break a lance with so formidable an antagonist as Mr. J. C. Robinson had not the opening of the controversy in the Times assumed the character of a challenge to those who practise water-colour painting, as well as to collectors and the custodians of our museums. I venture, therefore, to enter the lists as a humble representative of the challenged party upon the understanding that, in this capacity, I am entitled to the choice of weapons.

The weapon I select without hesitation is a plain unvarnished statement of facts, together with such inferences as may be drawn from the study of a question that has occupied the attention of water-colour painters long before the present discussion arose.

Convinced that ad captandum arguments and the recourse to exaggerated statements only divert the attention from the real issue, I will endeavour to summarise as briefly as possible the several phases through which the question has passed, and then enter upon the consideration of individual cases.

The project of lighting up the National Gallery, so justly condemned by the authorities of that institution, led naturally to the consideration of a kindred question the condition of the valuable and representative collection of water-colour drawings at the South Kensington Museum. Mr. J.C. Robinson, doubtless from a laudable desire to secure the safety of our public collections, drew attention to the deleterious influence of daylight upon water-colours, instancing the present condition of the South Kensington drawings as a proof that these works could not be exposed without risk to the light of day; but Mr. Robinson appears not sufficiently to have considered that there are other influences besides light which work prejudicially upon water-colours, such, for instance, as damp and impure air. A careful examination of the collection has convinced me that the two last agencies have been at work in several of the instances brought forward in evidence of the injurious effects of light alone. Now, as the arguments against the exposure of water-colour drawings upon our walls rest chiefly upon the assumption that daylight is their greatest enemy, I wish to point out that as regards their safety from damp, impure air, and mechanical injury from abrasion and careless handling, they are better protected when placed in frames covered with glass and sealed at the back than when they are kept in portfolios or in drawers.

When the results of the official inquiry into the merits of this difficult and complex question become known, the public will be in a position to judge how far the serious accusations brought against an important department of one of our principal museums are justified by the patient and searching inquiry that is being instituted. That the decision arrived at will be an impartial one and lifted above the heated atmosphere of a newspaper controversy there can be no reason to doubt. I may be permitted, however, in the interim, without in any way prejudging the case, to record a few facts that have come under my notice during a very careful survey of the South Kensington Collection, tending to prove that the danger of exposure to light has been greatly exaggerated.

The bearing of the very beautiful collection of early English water-colour drawings now on view at the Royal Institute upon the question at issue will next engage my attention, and here I have been so fortunate as to procure, in a large number of cases, exact and perfectly trustworthy data from which to form a judgment both as regards their present condition and the circumstances under which they were placed previous to their exhibition on the walls of the Institute.

Beginning with the permanent collection at South Kensington, examined the water-colour drawings seriatim, stopping here and there to note down such observations upon particular works as seemed to bear upon the question of exposure. I have been greatly aided in this investigation by the very ably compiled catalogue, which, together with the information contained in the labels, forms an admirable guide to the collection and conduces greatly to its educational value.

The drawings by Turner, fourteen in number, are thoroughly representative of his different styles, and with the exception of ‘Hornby Castle' (No. 88), the distance and foliage of which seem to have slightly faded, are in excellent preservation. The · Warkworth Castle' (No. 547), exhibited in 1799, is a splendid example of permanence. The paper in this beautiful drawing--perhaps slightly deepened in colour by age-seems to justify the assertion of Sir James Linton that this work and some others that he mentions are actually deeper in tone than when they were first painted—a remark that bas been perverted by Mr. Robinson into the assertion that they have gained in brilliancy.

Three drawings by H. W. Williams, who died in 1822, come next on my list—No. 648, · Castle Campbell,' No. 649, 'Loch Tummel,'

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

and No. 3018, ‘Bothwell Castle, painted in 1802. All three in perfect condition.

Francia, who died 1839, Nos. 568 and 625, the first faded, the second unchanged. The works of this clever artist are grey in tone, which renders it somewhat difficult to give an opinion as to what their antecedent condition may have been. The same remark applies to many of the earlier masters. John Glover, born 1767, died 1849, No. 478, Tivoli,' apparently unchanged. J. Laporte, b. 1761, d. 1839, Conway Castle, sky and water much faded, the Indian red pronouncing itself strongly, the indigo nearly disappearing. I wish to insist upon this quality in indigo when it is associated with Indian red, because in a great number of cases this combination of pigments appears to have been the sole cause of fading.

Mr. J. C. Robinson, in his letter to the Times of March 26, makes the remark that “the more or less fugitive colours are not only by far the most numerous, but they are also the most brilliant and useful to the artist. Now here I must join issue entirely with Mr. Robinson, for, if we eliminate indigo and some of the vegetable yellows, the causes of decay are quite insufficient to justify the cry that every fully-coloured water-colour drawing, framed and exposed to the light, begins to fade and change, to die in fact, from the very moment it is so exposed.'

Another instance of change arising from the use of the above combination may be noticed in No. 1303, W. F. Wells, “The Dawn.'

No. 522, B. Barker, b. 1776, d. 1838,‘ Brecon Town and Bridge,'a low-toned drawing in perfect condition, possibly a little darkened by age, but absolutely unfaded. Here indigo appears to have been freely used, but of Indian red there are no traces.

I now approach a series of drawings which offer a remarkable proof of permanence. I allude to the Ellison Gift.' It happens, most fortunately for my argument, that the greater part of these drawings are in their original frames. A glance at the style and condition of these frames ought to convince the most sceptical that the works they contain have been exposed on the walls for a period far exceeding the limits assigned by Mr. Robinson to the duration of a watercolour drawing

No. 1057, J. Varley, Ellison Gift, ' Bolton Abbey,' painted 1842, original frame, quite unfaded. No. 1056, J. Varley, Ellison Gift, • River Scene, painted 1840, quite unfaded; the original frame. No. 512, David Cox, Ellison Gift,' A Cornfield,' and No. 1018, Ellison Gift • Windsor Castle,' both in the original frames, in perfect condition. No. 1022, P. Dewint, Ellison Gift, The Snowdrift ;' Indian red is much exposed in the sky, the indigo faded, otherwise unchanged; original frame. No. 515, P. Dewint, Ellison Gift, ' Nottingham,' in perfect condition ; a very early style of frame. No. 1021, P. Dewint,

[merged small][ocr errors]

Ellison Gift, 'Lincoln Cathedral,' a large drawing in an old-fashioned frame, in good condition ; indigo in the sky possibly a little faded. Nos. 1040 and 1041, Ellison Gift, Ratisbon Cathedral' and *Würtzburg,' in perfect condition ; undated, but the style of frames points to about the year 1840. No. 515, Ellison Gift,“ The Cricketers; this beautiful drawing has suffered much in the sky, almost all the indigo having vanished, leaving the Indian red dominant. As a proof that the two pigments, Indian red and indigo, ought never to be associated, this drawing is of the utmost value; but it remains to be proved that this action is caused or aggravated by exposure to light. No. 1034, Ellison Gift, F. Mackenzie, b. 1787, d. 1854, 'Lincoln Cathedral,' framed in the old style, as are several others by the same artist ; in perfect condition. No. 1025, Ellison Gift, Copley Fielding, 'A Ship in Distress,' painted 1829, the original frame; the sky is "foxy,' from the use of Indian red. No. 519, Ellison Gift, Copley Fielding, 'South Downs,' in perfect condition; original frame.

Leaving this valuable series of drawings in the Ellison Gift, I will proceed to notice some others which have been selected to illustrate both permanence and change. And here I occupy more uncertain ground, as, for obvious reasons, I am prevented from ascertaining with certainty the extent to which they may have been exposed to light previous to their acquisition by the Museum.

No. 431, Cristall, b. 1767, d. 1847, . The Fishmarket, Hastings.' This drawing shows no evidence of fading, but its appearance suggests that it must have been exposed to smoke or impure air long prior to its purchase by the Museum in 1873. No. 2938, Smith Bequest, Eddridge, Near Bromley, Kent,' secured by the Museum according to the terms of the bequest in 1876 ; generally in good condition, as are the other eleven drawings by that artist. Eddridge was born in 1769, and died in 1821. No. 1426, Townshend bequest, Robson, b. 1790, d. 1833, ‘ Loch Coruisk, Skye,' in perfect condition. No. 3047, Smith bequest, Bonington, b. 1801, d. 1828, ‘Street in Verona,' in good condition. Nos. 568 and 569, J. Chalon, b. 1778, d. 1860. Both these drawings are in a bad condition. The “Welsh Landscape' has suffered from damp, and in the ‘ River Scene' there is distinct evidence that water has run down it from above.

No. 3013, Smith bequest (1876), Cotman, b. 1782, d. 1842, • Dieppe.' The colour is unaltered, but there are mildew spots in the sky, pointing to damp. The other drawings by this artist are in good condition. No. 564, D. Cox, Cottage near Norwood,' in perfect condition. No. 158, D. Cox, Moorland Scene,' signed and dated 1854, quite unchanged. I have omitted to notice two other drawings in the Ellison Gift, which I here add to that important seriesnamely, No. 1011, J. Barret, ' Landscape Composition,'original frame, and No. 1012, J. Barret, “Weary Tråmpers,' signed and dated 1840, both in a perfect state.

In order to justify the censure directed against the authorities of the Museum by Mr. J. C. Robinson for neglecting the necessary precautions for securing the safety of this collection, it will be necessary for that gentleman to prove that the unsatisfactory condition of some of the drawings, which I have not hesitated to notice above, has been brought about since they have been placed upon the walls of the South Kensington Museum.

It now remains for me to notice the interesting series of drawings by Cozens included in the Dyce collection. As regards their present condition they speak for themselves. I see no evidences of change, but they offer a valuable illustration of the method of work adopted by the early school of English water-colour painters, being executed first in monochrome and then heightened in effect by thin washes of local colour. This conventional treatment was followed by Turner in his early works, which in many instances have been actually copied from drawings by Cozens. Turner, however, very soon emancipated himself from the trammels of his instructor, his instinct for colour leading him to see that one monotonous tint was quite inadequate to express the varied hues of shadows as seen in nature. Girtin shared with Turner in this just discrimination, and, even in the few years of life allotted to him, was able to effect a revolution in the practice of water-colour art. The seven drawings at South Kensington appear to be well preserved, but as the turning point in the history of English water-colour art it is to be hoped that the authorities of the Museum will be able to enrich their collection by other and more striking examples.

Passing to the works of an artist belonging to a totally different school, I will next notice the large drawing by G. Cattermole, the • Diet of Spiers. This work having been particularly alluded to as an instance of fading, I wish to ask why it is that other drawings by Cattermole belonging to the same series (the Ellison Gift) and exposed to light under the same conditions offer so marked a contrast. The answer to this question is very simple. The · Diet of Spiers' is a very early work of the master. It is executed on white paper in transparent colour. At an early period of his career Cattermole discovered that the use of white paper was not congenial to him, and he soon abandoned it for the peculiar grey coarse paper used, I believe, for wrappers by the papermakers. Upon this material he painted frankly in body colour (gouache). This method, so well suited to the impetuosity which characterises his work, he pursued to the last.

The drawing in question, regarded as a work of art, could never have competed with his later productions, but I have it upon the authority of one of Cattermole's most intimate friends—a gentleman

« PreviousContinue »