by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
V&A, London
The Miraculous Draft of Fishes by Raphael and studio, 1515-16

Colour me beautiful

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 6 March 2021


Nicholas Hilliard was the first great English artist. That he employed watercolour for his exquisite miniatures - which he declared 'a thing apart from other painting and drawing' - conferred on it an elevated status in his native land.

In his lifetime Hilliard's miniatures won admiration throughout Europe and the reputation of the medium was subsequently reinforced by the superb works of later greats, such as J.R. Cozens, Thomas Girtin, John Sell Cotman and J.M.W. Turner. When over a hundred watercolours were displayed in the British section of the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1855, a French critic observed: 'Watercolour is, for the English, a national art.'

The importance of watercolour in the history of British art and a substantial donation in 1860 encouraged the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) to begin building up its now incomparable collection of such works at a time when other major international collections took less interest in the genre.

But the central role of watercolour in the development of multiple facets of the figurative arts worldwide has recently become better appreciated. One of the pioneering figures researching in this field has been Mark Evans, a senior curator at the V&A, now the organiser of a revelatory exhibition at the museum and author of a splendid book, 'Renaissance Watercolours: From Dürer to Van Dyck'. Unfortunately, as a result of the present Covid crisis, fewer of the stunning panoply of works that appear in the book are currently on display at the show than originally planned, but it is very much to be hoped that an expanded version of the exhibition can be restaged in the future.

Watercolour was the primary medium of painting in classical antiquity, ancient Asia and in the Americas. It remained so in the illuminated manuscripts of the European Middle Ages, which were more highly prized in elite circles than any other form of the visual arts well into the Renaissance. To take but one example, Jean Bourdichon, an illuminator at the French court in the late 15th-early 16th century was paid four times the average salary of other members of the royal household.

It was in these beautiful miniature illuminations that we find the origins of what were to become the various genres of western art, from landscapes and portraiture to botanical studies and history scenes. The Elizabethan physician and translator Richard Haydocke's awareness that not only did contemporary watercolour painting derive directly from the techniques used to illuminate manuscripts but the medium was also useful in sketching on the spot is made evident by his comment that watercolour was 'much used in former times in Church bookes' and 'for drawing from life', before, in his view, being 'brought to perfection by the most ingenious, painefull and skillful Master Nicholas Hilliard'.

But illumination of manuscripts, too, was also still evolving rapidly during this period. Marginal decorations of animals, insects, plants, fruits and trees were becoming more closely observed and naturalistic, as these elements increasingly took on lives of their own. When Hilliard declared that watercolours were ideal for paintings of 'the purest flowers and most beautifull creaturs in the finest and purest coullers', he may well have had in mind those by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues.

For a botanical painter, Le Moyne had a remarkably adventurous life. He was born in around 1533 in the hamlet of Morgues in the Loire Valley and probably studied watercolour painting in Rouen, where floral borders in manuscripts were still popular but marked by a new naturalism. He was a Protestant and joined an expedition that set sail from Le Havre in 1564 to found a Calvinist colony in Florida. However, the Spanish made a surprise attack on the settlement and massacred the colonists, Le Moyne being one of the few survivors, having leapt from a rampart and fled into a forest. He eventually made it back to France, only having to flee again, after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of the Huguenots in 1572, taking refuge in England, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1581.

Le Moyne's fame rests on nearly sixty marvellous studies of flowers, fruits and insects, mostly butterflies. He was also the author of a small volume of woodcuts of animals, birds, flowers and fruits 'taken from life', entitled 'La Clef des Champs' (Key to the Fields) dedicated to Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembrokeshire, sister of the courtier and poet Sir Philip Sydney, herself a poet, musician and needlewoman. The book was intended for 'embroidery, tapestries and all kinds of needlework' and their use as templates explains why only three copies of the book now exist.

An even rarer and more spectacular survivor are the seven remaining Raphael Cartoons of ten designs made for tapestries in the Sistine Chapel. These gigantic watercolours, each painted on nearly 200 sheets of paper glued together, are one of the V&A's most precious treasures. They were created by Raphael and his assistants as templates to be dispatched to Brussels for the weavers to follow in manufacturing the tapestries.

Thousands of such cartoons were made during the Renaissance, but these are among only a handful that have come down to us. They were acquired by Charles I for his own tapestry workshop established by the Thames at Mortlake. As part of the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the artist's death, the museum's Raphael Court has been completely refurbished and re-lit, which should greatly enhance the experience of viewing the cartoons by bringing out the richness of their colours and detail.

The rediscovery of ancient Roman paintings in Italy and descriptions of them in such works as Pliny the Elder's 'Natural History' stimulated Renaissance artists' interest in depicting the natural world. As the scholar and artist Leon Battista Alberti wrote: 'Our minds are cheered beyond measure by the sight of paintings depicting the delightful countryside, harbours, fishing, hunting, swimming, the games of shepherds, flowers and verdure.'

Among the first to emulate, indeed to surpass in excellence, such panoramic ancient images was the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck. Some of his earliest landscapes appeared in illuminated manuscripts, but such is the intensity of their observation and range of colour, it appears that those in his larger oils and altarpieces are almost certainly based on now lost watercolour sketches the artist made en plein air.

During the 16th century watercolours were increasingly used by artists both as preparatory sketches for larger oils and as works in their own right. The Venetian artist Jacopo de' Barbari is credited with painting, in around 1504, the first independent still life since antiquity, a watercolour now known as 'Study of a Dead Grey Partridge'. De' Barbari had entered the service of the Emperor Maximilian in Nurenmberg in 1500 and Dürer was unquestionably inspired by his work.

Dürer's watercolours were destined for connoisseurs, but his own and the prints of others achieved very wide distribution throughout Europe and beyond.

Although painting in watercolours was already well established in Mughal India, thanks to the influence of Persian courtly culture, with the arrival of paintings and prints from Europe they became increasingly naturalistic. This hybrid style is perfectly illustrated by 'Portrait of a European' (from around 1610-20), by an anonymous Mughal painter at the court of the Emperor Jahangir, with its picturesque backdrop reminiscent of European prints, but in which the castles, church towers and rustic buildings have been replaced by a Hindu temple, exotic pavilions and a minaret.

The V&A's collection also contains what is considered one of the earliest watercolours of the English landscape, 'A View of Nonsuch Palace', 1568, by the Flemish Joris Hoefnagel. This legendary country seat in Surrey was built by Henry VIII but inherited by John, 1st Baron Lumley from his father-in-law. Lumley had a much admired collection of portraits and books, which he kept at Nonsuch and at Lumley Castle in County Durham.

Lumley's pictures and library were inventoried in his so-called 'Red Velvet Book', lavishly decorated with watercolours illustrating the family's pedigree, heraldic devices and funerary monuments. Indeed, heraldry became a mania throughout Renaissance Europe, as families and dynasties vied with each other to establish their antiquity, giving rise to numerous geneaological books and charts, adorned with watercolour portraits of mythical forebears and coats of arms.

In the late 1530s Margaret of Austria's secretary Jan Franco compiled a genealogy tracing the Habsburgs back to their purported ancestors Noah and Hercules. But the Lumleys managed to go one better. When James VI of Scotland visited Lumley Castle in 1603 in his progress to London to be crowned James I of England, he was regaled by his hosts with proofs of their pedigree, which they had managed by then to trace back to the Garden of Eden. A later account described the monarch's response: ''In gude faith, man,' says the King, 'it may be that they are very true, but I did na ken before that Adam's name was Lumley''.'

Renaissance Watercolours From Dürer to Van Dyck; V&A, London; 2 December 2020 - 8 August 2021; Renaissance Watercolours: From Dürer to Van by Mark Evans with Elania Pieragostini V&A Publishing (£40)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023