June 28, 2017

British Drawings and Watercolors Show Spans Three Centuries With 102 Works 

“BEATRICE AT A MARRIAGE FEAST DENYING HER SALUTATION TO DANTE”: The Princeton Museum exhibit also includes this work in watercolor and pen by 19th century artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The Princeton University Art Museum has a special “peer” relationship with the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Britain’s University of Oxford, England. So it makes sense that Princeton would serve as the only international venue for “Great British Drawings from the Ashmolean Museum,” an exhibit of more than 100 rarely-seen drawings and watercolors by artists ranging from the 17th to 20th centuries. The show opens Saturday, July 1 and runs through September 17.

Celebrated artists including William Blake, David Hockney, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and J.M.W. Turner are among those represented by drawings and watercolors including portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, narrative scenes, and book illustrations.

“This is a wonderful way to get a sense, within an hour, of 300 years of British history, art, and culture through drawing, which is the most intimate and spontaneous expression of the creative process,” said Laura Giles, guest curator and the Princeton Museum’s Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr. Class of 1970 curator of prints and drawings. “I like to think of many of these works, especially the sketches done on the spot, as thinking on paper.”

The exhibit was mounted two summers ago at the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s oldest university museum (dating from 1689). It was curated by Colin Harrison, the Ashmolean’s senior curator of European art. If the “Great British” part of the title sounds familiar, it is no accident. It takes its cue from the popular television phenomenon, The Great British Baking Show. “The whole emphasis on ‘great British’ is deliberate,” Ms. Giles admitted. “But what’s important is the fact that these are masterpieces.”

The show is divided chronologically into four sections. First are portraits, imaginary landscapes, and visionary scenes by George Romney, Thomas Gainsborough, Henry Fuseli, and William Blake, among others. “It goes from the mid-17th century and the period of Oliver Cromwell up almost to the period of Jane Austen,” Ms. Giles said. “It includes lots of portraits. It helps to think of Britain as a very secular culture. There weren’t religious commissions, so artists tended to go for portraits. With the rise of the middle class, there was a big market for that.”

“Travel and Topography: the Golden Age of Watercolor Landscapes from 1750 to 1850” is next. According to a press release on the exhibit, this section “tracks the extraordinary evolution of watercolor from a ‘tinted drawing’ towards an expressive medium rivaling oil paint, as conveyed in masterpieces by J.M.W. Turner and contemporaries such as Thomas Girtin and John Sell Cotman.”

“It’s like a travelogue. It includes wonderful evocations of castles, and a view of a waterfall in the Lake District,” Ms. Giles said. “It goes beyond ‘Pastures Green and Satanic Mills’ [exhibited at the museum last year], which focused on the British landscape. There are a significant number of works which show British artists in places like India, Egypt, and other places where the empire expanded.”

The third section of the show is focused on the Victorian era and includes works by Pre-Raphaelite artists; the fourth is about representational and abstract 20th century British art. “You are plunged right into both world wars,” Ms. Giles said. “There are very moving images by artists who witnessed the wars themselves.”

The last wall has three portraits by David Hockney, Tom Phillips, and Frank Auerbach. “That’s the conclusion of the show. So you end where you started, with portraits,” Ms. Giles said. “In this show, you get more than a procession of artists. You get a real insight into aspects of history, culture, and literature.”

“A RUINED HOUSE”: This watercolor over graphite on paper is by British painter John Sell Cotman, who lived from 1782 to 1842.