Review: The Discovery of Paris: Watercolours by Early Nineteenth-Century British Artists @ Wallace Collection.

TS Boys
T.S. Boys, ‘The Quai de la Megisserie, the Pont au Change and the Ile de la Cite from the Pont-Neuf’ (detail), 1833. Cat. 42. (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Watercolour is often seen as the poorer cousin of oil painting. Oil can provide a depth and richness of colour that water-based paints simply can’t match. But watercolour isn’t without its own advantages – it’s a quick medium for capturing an accurate recollection of a scene and botanists and animal researchers have often favoured watercolour for their records.

This exhibition looks at Paris between 1802 and 1840 as painted by British artists. This was a particularly relevant time as war between Britain and France meant that London and Paris were in competition for the title of cultural capital of the modern world – arguably an ongoing contest. But due to the wars, most British citizens had no idea what Paris looked like and it’s these paintings that were the only source they could rely on.

There are seventy paintings in total and parallels can be drawn with the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition on Cotman, which followed a similar theme of providing an unseen view of France.

The painters on display are of a mixed ability but two pieces that stood out for me were the buy depiction of Le Louvre by Frederick Nash and an idyllic river scene by David Cox. Much is made of the fact that this was a warts and all representation of Paris with John Davis including a filthy gutter running through his city scene. Yet the washed out palette removes any sensation of dirt and grime from this work, thus lessening its impact.

There are several Turners on display but they are far from his best and it feels like they’ve been included due to his name, rather than the quality of the work. Only one work by Thomas Shotter Boys captures the griminess of the city and feels the most realistic work here.

These works can never overcome the disadvantages of watercolours in that they often seem flat. A telling comment is that one oil painting by Constable would easily outshine any of the works on display here.

But judged purely as an exhibition, it is a very good survey of watercolours from this time and their historic significance.

Exhibition website:

About Mark Westall

Mark Westall is the Founder and Editor of FAD magazine Founder and co-publisher Art of Conversation and founder of the platform @worldoffad

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