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Liquid Light: Painting in Watercolours at the Laing Art Gallery


A new exhibition at Newcastle's Laing Art Gallery will celebrate the rich quality and variety of the Gallery’s watercolour collection, highlighting artists from the ‘Golden Age’ of watercolours complemented by loans including 19th century artists Edward Burne-Jones and Arthur Melville, as well as contemporary artists Tracey Emin, David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Edward Burra, and Jennifer Durrant.


Portable and quick to dry, watercolour has been the choice of many artists to quickly capture the moment they are experiencing, both by the amateur and professional painter. Liquid Light will explore the dichotomy between watercolourists’ drive to record and describe subjects and the growing desire of many artists to capture ephemeral effects of light and weather, as well as the emotional power of landscape. Featuring approximately 200 works from more than 170 artists, the spring-summer exhibition will highlight how artists have explored the expressive potential of the medium itself.  


In its early years, watercolour art was primarily concerned with recording and describing, rather than achieving a painterly effect. Original techniques were developed from mapmaking and tinted drawing. Colour palettes were often restricted, with many works being monochromatic, or tinted with a limited palette of coloured washes.  


The show includes important pictures from the ‘golden age', from about 1780 to 1880, when British watercolours became established as an influential art movement, admired in Europe. This was a period when artists developed exceptional skills in watercolour technique and created extremely beautiful naturalistic landscape views filled with light and weather. 


Outstanding late 18th-century pictures by JMW Turner and Thomas Girtin feature the spectacular landscape of Holy Island and Northumbria, as well as views around the UK. Many artists travelled abroad, spurred by the British collector's desire to vicariously experience views in Italy, France and Spain.  


Many landscape watercolourists, such as Myles Birket Foster and Helen Allingham, expressed a romantic view of the British countryside. Other artists deliberately avoided conventionally attractive scenes, and tried to take a fresh look at nature. George Price Boyce (1826-1897) was one of the second wave of Pre-Raphaelite artists. The mound of earth making up Bensham Bank dominates the centre of the view in Windmills Hill, Gateshead (1864). The tower of an old windmill can be seen on the right of the scene. The picture's unusual composition is characteristic of the approach of Pre-Raphaelite artists. George Boyce was a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Boyce visited the North East several times. 


 The influence of open-air art movements is reflected in works such as Children in a Garden (c.1898) by Elizabeth Adela Forbes, lent by Sunderland Winter Gardens & Museum. Naturalistic details such as the bright patches on sunlight cast on the faces and clothes of young children contrasts with flat blocks of colour and dark outlines. Elizabeth Forbes and her husband Alexander Stanhope Forbes were at the centre of the artists’ colony at Newlyn in Cornwall in the late 19th century. This picture demonstrates the Newlyn artists' interest in painting scenes out of doors in natural light.  


Other scenes range from beach holidays to the working life of fisherfolk and seafarers, wrecks, harbours and sea views, as well as wartime scenes. Ethel Walker’s Bathers (1910-20) is one of a number of depictions of bathers that the artist produced during the early 20th century in which she used a beach scene as an inspiration for a large and decorative composition painted in veils of colour. 


Liquid Light will also showcase a range of impressive city views including Edinburgh, London, Durham and Newcastle, featured alongside images of vibrant street life. Sir George Clausen’s St Paul’s in November (c. 1900) is a spontaneous response to quickly changing effects of weather and light. The artist has captured sunshine gleaming on the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and reflections from the River Thames. The use of runny opaque watercolour reinforces the sensation of the wateriness of the atmosphere. The picture is part of a tradition of landscape watercolours influenced by both French Impressionism and earlier 19th century atmospheric landscape painting in Britain.


Artists of the Pre-Raphaelite circle feature in visionary and story subject pictures in the exhibition. They include Ford Madox Brown, whose exceptional picture of Entombment of Christ (1866-69) is painted with characteristic all-over detail and shallow space. 


Pictures exploring identity and relationships are further explored within the exhibition. One example is Me and Mum Looking at the Pots, 2016 (Arts Council Collection) whereby the artist Mawuena Kattah has created a composition of vibrant colours and patterns that reflect her Ghanian-London cultural heritage. Kattah’s picture represents her loving relationship with her mother, and her identity as a painter, ceramicist and textile artist.


Family love is explored in Thomas Heaphy’s Domestic Happiness, 1810 and Charles Sims’ portrayal of a mother and child in Play (c.1905-20). The artist has conveyed the dazzling effect of bright sunlight with dense gouache and through blurring the edges and details of the forms depicted in the picture. 


A group of abstract watercolours show how artists have explored the medium of watercolour itself, either as a solo medium or in combination with other media. This includes Tracey Emin’s I Could Feel You (2014, on loan from Tate). Emin describes her body with rapid, scrawling marks, varying from dryish brush to fluid line and dark blots. While she focusses on the abstract qualities of the form, the figure also expresses vulnerable humanity. Emin says, “Nowadays if I make a drawing I’m trying to draw love, but love isn’t always gentle”.  


Sarah Richardson, Keeper of Art, Laing Art Gallery, says: “The Laing Art Gallery’s collection of watercolours is nationally significant and one of the most outstanding regional collections outside London. This exhibition showcases the tremendous variety and quality of the pictures and is the first opportunity to see a major selection of work from the collection for more than two decades. It includes exceptional pictures by JMW Turner, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Arthur Melville and an impressive large watercolour by locally-born artist Thomas Miles Richardson jnr showing the Cairngorm Hills, which has been specially conserved for the exhibition. We’re very pleased to be able to include a significant number of pictures by women artists in the exhibition both from the Laing’s collection and from Tate and the Arts Council Collection, including important pictures by Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley. The contemporary loans include innovative pictures by nationally known artists such as Anish Kapoor.”


The Liquid Light: Painting in Watercolours will be available to see at the Laing Art Gallery in newcastle from 19th March - 13th August. To find out more visit www.laingartgallery.org.uk, follow us on Instagram and Twitter @LaingArtGallery and ‘Laing Art Gallery’ on Facebook.