The Oliver Thompson Collection of British Watercolours
10 November - 9 December 2006
In memory of the late Oliver Thompson, who died last year, Abbot Hall is staging an exhibition of his collection of British watercolours. A long term and generous supporter of Abbot Hall, Oliver had a passion for collecting watercolours, and over the years he acquired a very fine collection covering the heyday of British watercolour painting from the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. He was keen to have these fascinating works exhibited at Abbot Hall after his death so that they could be seen together before being dispersed. Two of his finest watercolours have been left to Abbot Hall, and these are joined by more than thirty others, to give an overview of this uniquely British tradition.
Ever-popular to this day, watercolour is the perfect medium to explore the fleeting effects of nature and the elements, its fluidity able to capture the vitality of the landscape and the atmosphere and light of the constantly changing British skies. The English watercolour tradition has its origins in the mid-eighteenth century, when it was used to add local colour and tonal washes to topographical and architectural drawings. One of the first English artists to recognise the potential of watercolour as a medium in its own right was Alexander Cozens (1717-86). His landscapes in monochrome washes influenced a more spontaneous approach to the medium which would reach its zenith in the work of Turner and Girtin at the end of the century, and continue to flourish into the Victorian era.
From the 1770s onwards the art of watercolour flourished as artists began to explore the British countryside on ‘The Picturesque Tour’, travelling with their sketchbooks to remote locations in search of landscapes embodying the rugged and irregular qualities synonymous with pictorial beauty. Included in the exhibition are landscapes painted in North Wales, the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District, including works by William Payne, John Glover, James Ward and John Varley. Two Lake District scenes - an early watercolour of a boat loading slate on Coniston, by Cumberland-born artist John ‘Warwick’ Smith (1749-1831), and a very fine Glover (1767-1849) entitledHorseman with Cattle, Ullswater– will enter Abbot Hall’s permanent collection after the exhibition, having been left to Abbot Hall by Oliver Thompson.
In the early nineteenth century watercolour became a genre in its own right, its status elevated by the achievements of artists such as Girtin, Turner, Cotman and Varley. The Society of Painters in Watercolours was founded in 1804, providing a regular exhibition venue in London. During this period, David Cox (1783-1859) and Peter De Wint (1784-1849) became two of the most influential exponents of watercolour as a medium to depict the atmospheric qualities of air and light. Both artists exploited the particular qualities of watercolour to capture the freshness and vitality of landscape in the open air. Works in the exhibition reveal De Wint’s fluid, bold and simple compositions and the free, loose style and rapidly applied colour of Cox’s later works.
The Oliver Thompson collection also contains a strong group of marine subjects, a genre which grew in popularity in the early Victorian period with the expansion of the British Empire and overseas trade. Spectacular shipping scenes by Edward William Cooke (1811-1880) and George Chambers (1803-1840) are displayed alongside a comprehensive group of works by Charles Bentley (1806-1854) which reveal a broad range of subject matter, from tranquil scenes of fisherfolk on the shore to dramatic shipwreck scenes which capture the destructive power of the sea.