Hermitage Rooms Archive

Gainsborough to Turner

British Watercolours from the Spooner Collection


Detail of painting: Edward Dayes (1763-1804), Somerset House from the Thames 1788
Edward Dayes (1763-1804)

Painting: Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), Peterborough Cathedral from the West Front, c.1795
Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)

Painting: Paul Sandby (1725-1809), Henry VIII Gateway, Windsor Castle 1767
Paul Sandby (1725-1809)

Painting: John Warwick Smith (1749-1831), On the Side of Lake Lugano, c.1781
John Warwick Smith (1749-1831)

Painting: John Robert Cozens (1752-1799), Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, 1780
John Robert Cozens (1752-1799)

Painting: J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), The Drachenfels, 1817
J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851)

Painting: Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827), Wooded Landscape with Artist Sketching, c.1790-1800
Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827)

Painting: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Wooded Landscape with Herdsman, Cows and Sheep, 1784-5
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)

Painting: John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), Doorway to the Refectory, Kirkham Priory, Yorkshire, 1804
John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)

17th November 2005 - 12 February 2006

The remarkable Spooner collection of early British watercolours is one of the finest of its kind and will be exhibited for the first time since 1968 at the Hermitage Rooms, Somerset House, London.

This is a rare opportunity to see the majority of this little-known but important collection with around 80 works on view, including outstanding landscape and figurative subjects by Thomas Gainsborough, Paul Sandby, Francis Towne, Alexander and J.R. Cozens, Thomas Girtin, John Constable, John Sell Cotman and J.M.W.Turner, as well as numerous fine works by lesser-known artists, many never previously exhibited. The exhibition, entitled Gainsborough to Turner: British Watercolours from the Spooner Collection, spans the ‘golden age’ of watercolour painting from around 1750 to 1850 and demonstrates the inventiveness and imagination of artists working in the medium during this extraordinary period of British art.

William Wycliffe Spooner (1882-1967) was the eldest son of Dr William Archibald Spooner, the celebrated Warden of New College, Oxford, forever associated with the linguistic lapses or ‘spoonerisms’ that bear his name. An engineer and inventor of an industrial drying process, he ran his company in Ilkley, Yorkshire, until well into his seventies. He had always been interested in art and acquired his first drawings while still struggling to make his mark as an engineer and subsequent success in business enabled him to extend his collection. Although he had a good eye for drawings, he had little interest in art scholarship and took guidance from friends and dealers and especially from his wife, Mercie, whom he married in 1955, and whose wide knowledge of the London art market was invaluable to the formation of the collection. Spooner’s close friendship with Sir John Witt led him to bequeath the collection to the Courtauld Institute of Art on his death in 1967.

A key work in the exhibition is one of Spooner’s early purchases, Edward Dayes’ Somerset House from the Thames, which took pride of place in his house. The fact that this picture will now be on display in the very building depicted would no doubt have given him immense pleasure. Precisely drawn architectural images such as Somerset House and Girtin’s majestic Peterborough Cathedral were chosen with Spooner’s engineer’s eye for fine draughtsmanship. However, his abiding love was for the countryside, which can be seen from the numerous images of mountains, lakes and rivers in the collection, exemplified by Francis Towne’s panoramic Welsh vistas and Cozens’s dramatic Alpine view, In the Canton of Unterwalden. Spooner owned a house near Dove Cottage in Grasmere and his affection for the Lake District led him to purchase two magnificent views of Borrowdale and Skiddaw by John White Abbott.

Spooner’s choice of subject matter is reflected in the exhibition’s themes through which the theory and practice of British watercolour are explored. The first room contains architectural images, among them watercolours of London and the Thames, including Somerset House and two fine views of Greenwich by Cozens and John Varley. Spooner’s penchant for drawings of ecclesiastical and ancient buildings mirrors the eighteenth-century collectors’ taste for antiquity and ruins, as epitomised by Cotman’s evocative Doorway to the Refectory, Kirkham Priory, Yorkshire - a brilliant example of his distinctive simplified drawing style developed around 1805.

Improved transportation and the subsequent growth of tourism encouraged artists to travel in Britain and beyond, recording scenery and human life both for sale to patrons and collectors as well as for their own pleasure. One of Spooner’s favourite pictures, Cozens’s Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, and two small Turner sketches of the Drachenfels on the Rhine and Bregenz by Lake Constance, completed in 1817 and 1840 on his return to England, are just a few of the great works displayed in a section dedicated to artists abroad, some of whom, such as David Wilkie and William Daniell, travelled as far as Constantinople and India to find their subjects.

Rural landscapes dominate the collection, as evident from the following two rooms in which the treatment of nature is investigated, from Gainsborough’s ‘invented’ compositions of woods, cattle and sheep of the early 1780s to closely observed river scenes made ‘on the spot’ in Wales by William James Müller some sixty years later. Alexander Cozens’s symbolic Blasted Tree in a Landscape is one of a number of drawings in a section focusing on trees.

The exhibition concludes with seascapes and figurative groups, among them seven by Rowlandson whose work Spooner particularly enjoyed. His Coombe Bridge, Devon, a fanciful wooded scene with river, packhorse and rustic figures, typifies the ‘Picturesque’ - the fashionable aesthetic theory popularised by amateur artist the Revd William Gilpin following a tour of the Lake District in 1772, and later satirised by Rowlandson in his famous illustrated book of the ‘tours’ of Dr Syntax.

As a guide to the technical development of watercolour, key works are highlighted throughout the exhibition. Topographical views, such as Paul Sandby’s brightly coloured gouache drawing, Henry VIII Gateway, Windsor Castle, and Towne’s characteristic ‘coloured’ outline drawings, contrast with the later more naturalistic and freely handled washes of Girtin, Turner and de Wint. The eighteenth-century view of watercolour as a less serious art than oil painting persists to this day. However, the power and quality of the images shown in this exhibition dispel any notion of watercolour as unglamorous and instead demonstrate the aesthetic appeal and beauty of the medium.

The exhibition, a collaboration between the Courtauld Institute of Art, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, California, and The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, will be held in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House - an appropriately intimate setting for these fine works.

exhibitions page