Britain’s collection of works on paper is not, as you might expect, housed in one of London’s major picture galleries. It resides instead in one of the British Museum’s vast Victorian study rooms, high above the better-known galleries of antiquities and artefacts. The dark oak cabinets lining its walls contain 50,000 drawings and watercolours, the result of continuous collecting since the museum was founded in 1753.
A new exhibition, “Places of the Mind”, takes a slender slice of this collection, and reveals how it represents a broader history of the imagination. It borrows its title from a collection of essays written in 1949 by Geoffrey Grigson, a poet and critic, in which he argues that landscapes are seen through a filter of personal and cultural associations. Featuring 125 of the collection’s watercolours and drawings, made between 1850 and 1950, the exhibition sets out to show how what the eye sees and the hand translates is always mediated by the mind.
In both the Victorian and modern periods, a picture of a landscape was rarely a topographical record alone. It could reflect individual, national and spiritual concerns; it could even capture the spirit of a place. In “Modern Painters” (1843), John Ruskin instructed artists to look beyond nature’s surfaces, “and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning”. Nearly 80 years later, Paul Nash, a modernist painter, wrote of “places...whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment, which cannot be analysed”.
Until the 1880s there was a consensus that watercolour was the medium of amateurs. Serious professionals tackled serious subjects in oil on canvas; painting watercolour was a gentle pastime for women and tourists, a common way to document a picturesque sight before the advent of photography. And yet, most successful artists of the Victorian and Edwardian eras sketched for pleasure, and many made fortunes through enormously popular watercolour exhibitions.
In the 20th century, the distinction between pictures made to be exhibited and preparatory or private studies became more fluid. The freedom that watercolour gave painters – in terms of style and technique – also became more widely appreciated. It is telling that during the Crimean war and then the world wars, many significant British artists turned to watercolour to help them understand the changing world around them. The enormous variety in these landscapes reflects a full range of emotions and intentions. “Places of the Mind” reveals as much about ways of thinking about nature as it does nature itself.
“The Old Bowling Green” (1865) by John William North (1841-1924)
By the late 19th century, sentimental images of bucolic settings were growing in popularity. John William North was one of a group of painters known as the “Idyllists” who depicted closely observed scenes within the landscape, rather than spectacular mountain views or mythical worlds that had enthralled previous generations. He discovered Halsway Court, a 15th-century manor house, on a walking tour of Somerset in 1860, and returned several times to paint it. North’s romanticised images of country life were part of a flourishing interest in nature, which was also evident in the growing popularity of natural history, cycling and rambling as well as in the establishment of societies such as the Commons Preservation Society (1865), the National Footpath Preservation Society (1887) and the National Trust (1895).
“A Pastoral Landscape” (1878) by Samuel Palmer (1805-81)
Infused with romantic wonder, Palmer’s scene of a river at nightfall is a vision of serenity and harks back to classical arcadia. Though he was largely overlooked during his lifetime, his contemporaries admired these late, poetic landscapes. A literary magazine described this painting as “teeming with rich colour, full of subject and interest”. In the 1920s and 1930s interest in Palmer was revived by artists such as Paul Nash and John Piper, who admired his highly imaginative interpretations of the English landscape.
“The Wanderer” (1911) by Paul Nash (1889-1946)
Nash painted this watercolour shortly after quitting art school, where he had been for only a year. The decision left him free to concentrate on landscapes, a genre that would preoccupy him until the end of his life. He believed in the genius loci – the spirit of certain places – and was drawn to landscapes with a sense of ancient history. It was always the inner life of a subject that appealed to him. A year after he completed “The Wanderer”, Nash described how he had tried “to paint trees as tho’ they were human beings…because I sincerely love and worship trees and know they are people.”
“Graveyard in Tyrol” (1914) by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Sargent painted this while he was detained in Austria after the outbreak of the first world war. He had been on a sketching holiday, but was unable to return until he had the right papers. By this point he had stopped painting the society portraits which had made his name, and was concentrating entirely on landscapes. This swift, dexterous watercolour depicts cast-iron crucifixes traditionally used to mark graves in the Tyrolean Alps – a hauntingly prescient image.
“Study for an Illustration to Francis Quarles’ Hieroglyphics” (1943) by Graham Sutherland (1903-1980)
Sutherland worked for the War Artists Advisory Committee, which ensured that work by contemporary artists who contributed to the war effort was exhibited around the country. Between 1941 and 1944, he focused on landscapes hollowed out by mines, bomb damage and foundries. This image was made to illustrate Francis Quarles’s “Hieroglyphics of the Life of Man” (1638), a book of emblem poems, in which a symbolic image is accompanied by verse. Based on studies of mines near Abergavenny in Wales, this dark, foreboding scene seems to depict two regal figures, standing together solemnly – perhaps one of them is the “illustrious prince of light” mentioned in the text. Rarely directly representational, his images sought to capture the feeling of being in a landscape. “I felt that I could explain what I felt by paraphrasing what I saw”, he said in 1942.
“Portreath” (1949) by Peter Lanyon (1918-1964)
A native of Cornwall, Lanyon showed a grittier side to his county than others, like Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who settled there in the 1940s and 1950s. Though Portreath’s economy was in decline, the Cornish mining industry still relied on its port to transport copper ore to Wales. This depiction of the industrial town gives a sense of its working rhythms and expresses Lanyon’s concern for a changing way of life. It is a notably different view of the landscape than the fair-weather perspective of its burgeoning community of artists, known as the St Ives school, who generally preferred to focus on its more ancient, and aesthetic, aspects.
Places of the Mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850-1950 British Museum, London, until August 27th