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Watercolours - estimate their value

by Robert Cumming

The Courtauld has a very fine collection of English watercolours and in this competition I have selected six, all of them dating from the late 18th/early 19th centuries.

The art of watercolour is a particular English speciality. No other nation developed a school of watercolour painting in the same way. The medium appealed to a very wide range of artists and they were produced in great quantities. Constable and Turner were great masters of the watercolour medium - Turner being the greatest exponent there has ever been. Their small scale, wide range, large quantity and variety, as well as their relative cheapness compared with oil paintings, has meant that they have provided, and continue to provide, a fertile and interesting field for collectors. In this competition, I am asking you to assess, or guess at the price of my chosen watercolours. There are four broad price bands and you have to say within which price band each of the watercolours would fall.

The English watercolour tradition developed after 1700 and the earliest examples are really drawings to which colour was subsequently added. It was only in the early 19th century that watercolour became a truly independent medium and its fullest possibilities were properly realised: artists learned how to use the colour independently of the drawn line, and experimented with textured and coloured papers.

Early watercolours were mostly topographical - picturesque landscape views of identifiable places, townscapes and buildings. The developing taste for landscape and the picturesque went hand in hand with the special qualities of watercolour painting. Watercolour is a notoriously difficult technique since it is not possible to make changes and corrections, as it is with oil paint for example. Precision is paramount and inexpertly handled the colours soon become flat and muddy. But in the hands of a master, the thin translucent washes, which are the hallmark of the medium, have a wonderful delicacy and clarity. These virtues can wonderfully capture the same delicate subtlies of light and atmosphere which are a particular feature of the English countryside and luminosity, and they can also suggest the charming qualities of light and shade on the textured walls of old ruins and buildings that were much beloved at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.

As the art of watercolour established itself and its status it became more complex in terms of technique and subject matter English artists travelled frequently to the Continent and used their skills to record the topography of Italy and Switzerland and the romantic landscapes and architecture of France and Germany. As if in return, English landscapes often became endowed with Italianate qualities of warm light and stillness.

The best watercolours exploit the lovely delicacy and translucency of the medium and in addition endow their subjects with poetic and picturesque qualities - perhaps by the addition of figures, by a subtle simplification or emphasis of certain features, by a conscious reorganisation of untidy nature into a well ordered composition, or by drawing the eye in from foreground to middle ground to silvery vaporous distance.

Valuing works of art is not a science, and many different considerations come into play, some of them very subjective. The connoisseur will assess subject matter, size, and skill, together with the imagination and innovation of the artist. Large complex watercolours of an attractive subject handled with flair will inevitably command high prices. Condition is also important. The delicacy of the watercolour medium and the fragility of the paper onto which they are made often become faded and brittle and a ghost of what they once were. The market also likes famous names. A wonderful work by a minor artist, although a lovely thing in itself, will not fetch as high a price as a less interesting or remarkable piece done on an off day by a first class name. It may seem unjust, but the consolation is that it offers interesting collecting opportunities for somebody who is prepared to back the judgement of their own eye and ignore snobbish fashion and status.

Two of the watercolours that I have chosen are by Francis Towne (1739/40-1816). Towne brought the tradition and development of the "tinted drawing" to its fulfilment. His favoured technique was a flat wash over waterproof brown pen and ink and he loved linear pattern, structure, economy and a poetic response to mass and form. He was interested in precise light effects for a particular time of day.

Paul Sandby (1725/6-1809) was one of the early pioneers of painting from nature. He produced a wide range of landscapes and townscapes and liked to enliven his work with anecdotal groups of figures, an idea which he borrowed from Canaletto.

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) was a leading member of the Norwich School and is considered to be one of the first rank masters of watercolour. His works are distinguished by strong design, and a liking for rather austere formal structures and decorative pattern. He used watercolour in flat washes of sombre colour, minimising shadows and defining shape by firm edges of wash rather than a drawn outline.

George Barret (II) (1732-1784) came from Ireland and was a founder member of the Royal Academy. He took a particular delight in expansive views and panoramas.

Edward Dayes (1763-1804) produced picturesque work which continued the "tinted drawing" tradition.

I hope I have given you enough information for you to be able to spot which artist painted which watercolour, and that you will enjoy assessing their likely market value within the bands that I have given.