Gainsborough to Turner - Watercolours At The Hermitage Rooms

By Caroline Lewis | 22 December 2005
Shows a watercolour of a gothic stone archway.

Doorway to the Refectory, Kirkham Priory, Yorkshire (1804) by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842). © Courtauld Institute of Art

One of the finest collections of British watercolours built up by a private individual is now on display at the Hermitage Rooms, Somerset House in London.

Gainsborough to Turner: British Watercolours from the Spooner Collection is on show until February 12, 2006 and features about 80 outstanding works by famous and little-known artists from the golden age of watercolour, the mid-18th to mid-19th century.

It’s a rare outing for the collection, which hasn’t been exhibited since 1968. The works – both landscapes and figurative – were collected by William Wycliffe Spooner (1882-1967), the eldest son of Dr William Archibald Spooner, famed for giving his name to slips of the tongue known as spoonerisms.

Shows a watercolour of a couple sitting under a tree by lake.

Wooded Landscape with Artist Sketching, c.1790-1800, by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827). © Courtauld Institute of Art

William Wycliffe Spooner was an engineer by profession and invented an industrial drying process. When his business in Ilkley, Yorkshire, became successful, he was able to indulge his interest in art with the advice of friends and dealers. His wife, Mercie, also had a good knowledge of the London art market, while Spooner’s friendship with Sir John Witt led him to bequeath the collection to the Courtauld Institute.

The exhibition begins with architectural images, including paintings of London and the Thames. Spooner had a penchant for ecclesiastical and ancient buildings, epitomised in Cotman’s Doorway to the Refectory, Kirkham Priory, Yorkshire and Girtin’s majestic Peterborough Cathedral.

The engineer’s eye for fine draughtsmanship is also evident in the precisely drawn Somerset House from the Thames by Edward Dayes – an early purchase and key work which took pride of place in Spooner’s home. He would no doubt be pleased to see it displayed in the very building it depicts.

Shows a watercolour of a wooded ravine and waterfall.

On the Side of Lake Lugano, c. 1781 by John Warwick Smith (1749-1831). © Courtauld Institute of Art

His abiding love, however, was for the countryside, and rural scenes dominate the collection. A range of styles is represented, from Gainsborough’s imagined compositions of woods, cattle and sheep to closely observed river scenes by William James Müller. Alexander Cozen’s drawing Blasted Tree in a Landscape stands out in a section focusing on trees, as does a dramatic Alpine view by Alexander Cozens, In the Canton of Unterwalden.

Tastes of the day are evoked with works made abroad, as improved transport meant both the public and artists were able to travel further afield. Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, by Cozens, was one of Spooner’s favourite pictures, shown in a section dedicated to images from overseas. Other subjects here include Drachenfels on the Rhine and Bregenz by Lake Constance, by Turner and paintings made as far away as Constantinople and India.

Shows a watercolour of mountains and a lake.

The Drachenfels, 1817 by JMW Turner (1775-1851). © Courtauld Institute of Art

Closer to home, the collector’s affection for the sublime Lake District – he owned a house near Grasmere – led him to purchase two magnificent views of Borrowdale and Skiddaw by John White Abbott. Panoramic vistas of Wales by Francis Towne are also on display, along with numerous depictions of mountains, lakes and rivers.

The Picturesque is typified in the concluding part of the exhibition, which contains seascapes and figurative groups. Spooner was especially fond of the work of Rowlandson, who later satirised the aesthetic theory in caricatures illustrating the tours of clergyman Dr Syntax (a fictional character invented by William Combes).

Gallery talks accompany the exhibition every Friday at 1.15pm.

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