So peculiarly English…. a label I just can’t seem to shake off. But what is it that makes me and fifty million others so English, and so peculiar? I love the great stereotypes of England and its mad inhabitants, with our tea-drinking, cheese-rolling, queue-respecting and morris dancing. So how disappointed must I have been when I saw that the V&A, in order to celebrate Englishness, has put on an exhibition dedicated to English watercolour painting?
English watercolours are not peculiar in any way, shape or form. In fact, they are the opposite, the very essence of banality. The only peculiar thing about them is that the English were the only ones to bother with them, and that they insisted on doing it for so long.
Not only that, but topographical landscapes, so you can see the English countryside in all its… dreariness. Early topographical watercolours, writes Bruce MacEvoy, were “primarily used as an objective record of an actual place in an era before photography”; as land surveillance maps, for military strategy (to help us out with our colonising), for the mega-rich to show off their wealthy estates (built in all probability with money from the slave trade), and for archaeological digs, for when we wanted to have a record of whose lands we had already pillaged. Doesn’t it feel great to be English?
When we weren’t painting watercolours to celebrate our upper classes’ moral ineptitude, we were depicting scenes of England’s lush greenery, her rolling hills, picturesque villages and rocky coastline. Or rather, Turner, Constable and Gainsborough were. People can’t get enough of their tedious seascapes and landscapes, as if they’ve never seen a tree or a rock before in their lives. The only redeeming feature of Turner is that apparently he once had himself “tied to the mast of a ship in order to experience the drama” of the elements during a storm at sea, which a great example of English eccentricity right there.
Forget the 427 identical paintings of abbeys and vales, heaths and lakes; I’d rather see something truly peculiar, like a painting of Turner tied to a mast of a sinking ship. Then, and only then, would I come to your watercolour exhibition.
If, unlike me, you have a great love for the topographical landscapists of yore, get down to the V&A for their exhibition ‘So Peculiarly English: topographical watercolours’ (from the 7th June 2012 – 1st March 2013). Read up on a classic English painter before (or after) your visit with this Turner ebook, or find more art you’ll love on the Ebook-Gallery.