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Watercolours


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A speciality of the British school in the 18th and 19th centuries, watercolours provide enormous choice for the collector today.





In the i8th century, British artists began to create watercolours as completed works in their own right (rather than as studies for oil paintings).





The best exponents made the most of watercolour's particular qualities - its translucency and its suitability for captur­ing atmosphere, weather and so on. Today you can start a worthwhile collection with only a few hundred pounds.









The i8th-century watercolourists most often combined pen and ink drawing with watercolour - like a colouring-in process that evolved from the tinted drawings of the first half of the century.



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The 'classic' watercolour period, of about 1790-1840, favoured pure watercolour applied more boldly in layers of thin washes, with only minimal pencil under-drawing.





The only white is the colour of the paper. Later Victorian watercolours tend to be more brightly coloured and heavily painted, often with the use of opaque body colour (gouache) or white heightening.







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LANDSCAPE AND GENRE







Landscape evolved over the 18th century from topographical drawings through idealised 'Picturesque' views to the dramatic Romantic style of the drawings continued to be made, ranging from country mansions to the new spas and the grand town halls of industrial cities.

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At the end of the 18th century and in the first half of the 19th, artists such as John Robert Cozens, John Sell Cotman, Thomas Girtin, J.M. W. Turner, David Cox and Peter De Wint - great masters of British water- colour- executed both gentle rural scenes and wild mountain landscapes at home and abroad.





Works by Turner and Girtin may reach six figures at auction. However, while the best landscapes by other masters such as Cox and De Wint fetch over £10,000, their minor works - small views of unknown spots or sketchbook studies - start at around £ 1000.





Many artists were also teachers. Water- colour painting was a polite accomplishment for ladies and gentlemen, and almost a requirement for those on the Grand Tour.



Good watercolours by amateurs can still be found from around £300, with less proficient but sometimes charming examples or mono­chrome drawings selling for well below this.



In the late Victorian period, the passion for dramatic landscapes declined in favour of pretty cottage gardens or pastoral scenes with cottages and children. Prices for these works have shot up in the past few years and in many cases they are now more expensive than early 19th-century pieces — a reversal of the situ­ation a few years ago. The prettiest works by Myles Birket Foster and Helen Allingham frequently fetch more than £10,000





. Water- colours by amateurs or the many members of the Stannard family will be rather cheaper, but are often highly sentimental.



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Townscapes were also popular subjects with artists and amateur watercolourists in the 19th century. Many of these, particularly by artists such as Samuel Prout and William Callow, are continental scenes with the lively added touch of little figures.











Narrative and genre painting, by Francis Wheatley and other artists, was popular in hecame popular again - in increasingly nostalgic form - in the Victorian era, when it tended to merge with landscape.





Works hy the 'Ori­entalists' from travels in the Middle East are now also in great demand. David Roberts, Edward Lear and others did topo­graphical studies, while ' John Frederick Lewis captured the mystique of the harem. Others went even farther afield - William Daniell to India at the start of the 19th century, Alfred East to Japan at the end.




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ILLUSTRATION AND CARICATURE











Little original artwork for book illustrations survives from before the late 18th century. Work for popular children's books such as the elaborate watercolours of Arthur Rackham are sought after and start at around £3000, but well-done illustrations for now obscure Victorian novels are much cheaper.







Caricatures are another popular field. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Thomas Row- landson poked fun at the upper classes and was a prolific watercolourist as well as a print- maker his works appear regularly in the salerooms. Originals of illustrations for 19th-century issues of Punch are also collect­able, as, increasingly, are those by the leading 20th-century newspaper cartoonists.





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ADVICE TO BUYERS





Prices can vary enormously for works by the same artist, since they depend not only on who the artist is, but also on fashion, subject matter or location, the scale and complexity of the work, and condition.



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The latter is always important, as watercolour pigments — especially greens and blues - fade with exposure to bright sunlight. Other common faults to watch out for are 'foxing' - small brown spots caused by damp — and brown marks or browning of the paper from acid mounts. Both these can be improved by paper conservators, but fading cannot. It is fading that has led to the common misconception that watercolours are pale. In fact, every skilled watercolourist achieved a balance between translucency and rich colours.
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