Watercolour, Tate Britain

Edward Lear, Macropus parryi, watercolour, reproduced as a lithograph in Volume 1 of the Transactions of the Zoological Society of London. Image source: http://static.zsl.org/images/width500/img-2054-600-9107.jpg

One does not necessarily think of the poet Edward Lear as a zoological illustrator. But his watercolour of the Kangaroo was just one of the surprises that awaited me at the Watercolour exhibition at the Tate Britain (until August 21, 2011).

It is an excellent show bringing together often less well known watercolour works by major, and sometimes less well known artists - Turner, Blake, Samuel Palmer, Graham Sutherland, alongside Cozens, Paul Sandby, Wenceslas Hollar.

The thematic curation can be a little irritating - you arrive at a bit of a hotch potch of works in places, and at times it seems overly didactic. Some of the categories do in fact work - The Natural World, and Travel and Topography being good examples, but other categories are much more open and less convincing than a chronological approach - Intimate Knowledge, Abstraction and Improvisation, InnerVision - and here we are at the whim of the curator (hence the dispersed Turners, some breathtaking late works in Abstraction... of course we know what the curator means, but the subtlety and the differences get lost beneath such heavy handed didacticism.)

Some of the time I found myself marvelling at technique (how does Turner in his landscapes, achieve such an apparent freedom and overall unification of the image together with such exquisite fine detail?) and at many works that did not, even on close inspection, seem to resemble watercolours, such were their technical strengths.

All in all, this is a show that must be seen - and, I would have thought, a particular delight to any illustrator. It has really made me rethink the possibilities and the vast potential of the medium.

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