The Travelling Eye
Review of The Picturesque Tour exhibition at the Laing in Newcastle. Written by Marina Vaizey for The Times, May 1982. exhibition major British watercolours from artists on the Picturesque Tour
The exhibition was curated by Gill Hedley who is a writer, an independent curator and a consultant on contemporary visual arts.
A SUPERBLY chosen exhibition devoted to the art of watercolour — the quintessential English medium — brilliantly explores the images created by the artist-traveller and the man of taste in pursuit of the beauties of nature, under the title of The Picturesque Tour in Northumberland and Durham, 1720-1830. Travelling, said the artist Edward Dayes, should be the enlargement of ideas, and the landscapes the artists both found and created certainly embodied ideas—and complex debates and theorisings on the nature and definition of Beauty, the Sublime and the Picturesque.
Hardly a view was complete without a ruin, a castle, an abbey, a cathedral, a city near or far; the landscape was formed, altered punctuated, even littered by human activity. The idea of the picturesque — something between pure beauty and the sublirpe, a kind of domesticated sublime — was in the eye of the beholder, less wild and terrible than the sublime, less smooth and well ordered than the beautiful.
The North, partly on grounds of expense and continental dangers, particularly appealed. In 1760, the Duchess of Northumberland was ecstatic at the sight of Dunstanburgh "stupendously magnificent" and "a scene of glorious horror & terrible Delight."
The exhibition stimulates by grouping the same subjects by divers hands together: Durham by Girtin, Turner (several, including a marvellous magical interior), William Daniell, Edward Dayes (by moonlight); Lindisfarne by Luke Clennell, Girtin, John Varley, Turner. Varley's panorama of smoky Newcastle (1808) is a spacious light-filled delight; Glover, sketching in the same city, said he had never seen such Drunken, Vulgar Peoples. Girtin's two views of Morpeth Bridge show the considerable artistic license taken: neither is topographically accurate yet both are convincing, distorting to tell the truth.
Watercolours by John Sell Cotman (centenary year) and the still underrated Thomas Hearne are sparkling components of this dazzling, spirited exhibition, with a witty, informative catalogue by Gill Hedley. In spite of all the ruins on the wall. Northern Rock, the building society, has sponsored the show with Christie's. The whole strikingly explores the marriage of reality and artifice, observation and idea.