THE OLD SOCIETY OF PAINTERS IN WATER- C 0 LOUR S.* •
THE present Exhibition of sketches and studies at the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours is notable for one charac- teristic which does not always distinguish these winter exhibitions. It is, indeed, an Exhibition of sketches and studies, rather than one of finished drawings. Of course, some of the- old offenders in this respect are offenders still ; Mr. Birket Foster, for instance, sending a gigantic, very highly-finished * Royal Society of Painters in 'Water-Colours, December, US&
work, of the utmost limits of size which the ordinary paper. manufacturer allows ; Mr. George Fripp rivalling him in minuteness and elaboration on a smaller scale ; and Mr. Carl Haag, and Mr. E. K. Johnson, sending work which is as complete and highly finished as their hands can make it. Several other artists, too, of lower, note err in the same direction, sending pictures, which only in their absence of motive and lack of subject, can be called either sketch or study. On the whole, however, the sketches and studies predominate, and the interest of the Exhibition is, as far as they are concerned, greater than usual. It is almost matter of course that a notice of such a collection of works must of necessity be somewhat uninteresting to the general reader, if it be not excessively brief in its descriptions. For the merit of landscape, and architectural sketches and studies (and nineteen-twentieths of those here are of one or the other kind), is mainly of a technical character, especially when the majority of the artists look at their subject from very much the same point of view. And there is little that is new to be said as to the technique of the majority of artists who are members of the Royal Water-Colour Society. They have, for the most part, been before the public for a long series of years, and the excellencies and defects of their painting are by this time sufficiently known. Before glancing round the Exhibition, as a whole, there is one work which we wish to specially mention. This is a view of sands at low tide, with a few figures standing on the verge of the sea, and a very finely drawn sunset sky, with many long lines of cloud, stretching towards the spectator from the horizon. It is notable for three things, all three being considerable attractions in a water-colour drawing,— it is perfectly true to Nature, in one of her very beautiful aspects ; the sky is magnificently drawn, and the atmospheric effects very clearly and subtly rendered ; and it has, besides this, a distinct touch of imaginative perception. This is essentially a picture where the artist has had a definite intention in his mind. The only defect which criticism, as it appears to us, could find in the work, is, that it appears a trifle forced ; its imaginative quality seems, as it were, to be rather dragged in by the scruff of the neck, at the last moment. Nevertheless, the result is a very delightful one ; and perhaps the painting of wet and dry sand has never been more completely done, in the history of water-colour, than it is done here. The weakest part of the drawing is the narrow band of sea, between the sand and the low horizon. But Mr. Goodwin is not a great sea-painter, and he has concentrated his efforts on the sand, figures, and sky, rather than on the water.
Let us look quickly round the Gallery, taking the works, in the main, in the order of the catalogue. A large picture by Jackson, coast-line and placidly breaking waves, called "An Evening Breeze from the Sea,"—pretty, thin, and too con- ventional, but a fair specimen of the artist ; and by its side one of Miss Montalba's Dutch canals, with the rich, black-brown boat, the harsh, black-green water, and the whitey-brown sky, of all her later work. The mannerism which we mentioned in notice after notice, some years ago, as likely to destroy the power and beauty of Miss Montalba's painting, has grown upon her now till it has become a confirmed habit, from which perhaps she could not, if she would, depart. This lady, who had within her great possibilities of becoming a fine colourist, has flung them away into the muddy water of her Northern canals, or buried them under the dark, shapeless sail of her Dutch barges. What remains,P A strong grasp of the architectural features of her subject, a considerable power of composition, and certain notes of fine colour, flung here and there, as it were, recklessly, like gleams of sunset light on the clouds in a stormy sky. There is a sketch by Mr. Thorne Waite, called "Yew Trees at Kingley Vale," which is as good as it is possible for a sketch of that slight character to be. It is fall of brightness, full of atmosphere, well drawn, giving a great effect of space and suggested detail therein ; it is, above all, most complete in the amount of effect which has been gained with comparatively slight labour. The artist appears in it to have done, with ease and speed, exactly what he intended to accomplish. Such defects as the sketch possesses—an absence, for instance, of feeling, a lack of com- position, and a want of depth, for the Nature of Mr. Thorne Waite seems only to be skin-deep—are defects which, after all, are scarcely defects in a sketch of this description. The work does not profess to be the whole truth ; but in so far as it goes, it is entirely veracious. We should like to say a few words on the pie.. three of Mr. Wilmot Pilsbury (he contributes nine to this Exhibi- tion) ; but we have o frequently written on this subject, that our readers must know the character of this artist's painting almost by heart. Still, these sketches should be noted, if only as showing, in the highest possible degree, the defects which the French and all foreign nations regard as being inseparable from English painting. They are laboured, minute, and dull ; they are pretty, trivial, and commonplace. They are true in detail, they are false in mass ; they are bright in colour, they are wrong in value. They have, crudely speaking, no subject, no composition, and no object. The artist has looked at Nature with a microscope, a microscope, we will suppose, made by some inferior maker, which has just availed him to disintegrate all the details of which a landscape is composed, without acquainting him with any corresponding truth of structure, or revealing to him any secret of meaning. The irritating part of the work is that it is blameless after its kind ; it seems to hand round the plate, as it were, with its Sunday coat on, and ask for our charity and our sixpences, and our admiration of its correct deportment. It is bad enough when the Frenchmen blame us, as Mrs. Browning said some time ago, for painting
"A thistle and an ass,
Because we love it and we find it so."
But we deserve the blame in a far greater degree when we paint thistles and asses without loving them ; and it is this defect of Mr. Pilsbury's work, and of the work of those like him, which causes us so much annoyance. Every one who knows anything whatever about Nature, knows that whatever she looks like, it is not this ; one scents the drawing-master and the studio a mile off in painting of this kind. And, perhaps, the worst part of the matter is that it finds a ready market and continual popularity.
Let us look at Mr. E. K. Johnson's work, one of the older members of this Society ; for it is, we are glad to say, this year, considerably better than it has been for some time past. Indeed, it is probably the case, that his single figure, entitled "Waiting," is the best piece of figure-work in this Exhibition. It is, of course, a pretty, fair woman in a light dress, who leans against a silver-birch tree, to- wards evening. The figure is well drawn, and the landscape, though slight, is delicately, if somewhat flatly, painted ; but the strength of the picture is its grace and its tenderness. There is a faint transparency in the painting of the light summer dress, which is most beautifully harmonised with the soft flush of colour in the woman's face, and the light leaves of the tree, where they are seen against the sky. As a matter of fact, we should imagine that the leaves were wrong in tone,—too light in relation to the sky behind them ; but they are right in relation to the picture, and would have destroyed its effect had they been stronger. One fault there is, which may, perhaps, just be noticed as a piece of technical criticism. That is, that Mr. Johnson, in his anxiety to bring the faintly coloured face into its proper relief against the sky, has allowed himself to outline, or, at all events, to give the hardness of an outline, to a portion of the chin and neck, and has thereby far overshot his mark. This bit of the flesh-painting seems to have a sharp edge, as if it were out out of cardboard. There are several other contributions of Mr. Johnson's here, that are nearly as good as this, and there are portions of the picture in which the little girl is drying the rose-leaves for pot pourri, which are very beautifully painted, as, for instance, the long flower-bed on the left hand of the com- position, which is almost worthy of Fred Walker in the bright- ness and individuality of each flower therein.
Of Mr. Henry Wallis's "Eastern Bazaar," we can only say that it shows the painter to disadvantage. There is a laboured garishness of colour which can hardly be excused in such a subject ; for the peculiarity of all those rich Oriental tints seems to be that no matter how bright, they are always harmonious. Nor is there anything in the faces of the obi shopkeeper and his customers to atone for the rest of the picture. Mr. Brewtnall, we are glad to see, has taken our advice, and both in this Exhibition; and in the one of Oil- Paintings at the Institute, has placed his figures in subordina- tion to the landscape portion of his pictures. And since he is as strong in the last as he is weak in the first-mentioned respect, it is almost unnecessary to say that his work gains considerably. There is a little study here, of a lonely cove, and a deep sea washing up into it, with a small nude figure of a bather standing on a mass of rock in the foreground, which he entitles " Green and Cool," which is as delightful a little rendering of its subject as can be conceived, and which is, moreover, really well and carefully drawn.
Of all the genuine sketches, however, in the gallery, for our own pleasure we should be tempted to take Mr. Henry Moore's sketch of blue sea under a bright grey sky, in which heavy masses of cloud are interspersed with gleams of sunshine, which he entitles" Study Afloat—for the Newhaven Packet." Not only is this intensely interesting as showing the artist's power of grasp'ug the character of a certain aspect of sea and sky, but it is really wonderful, in the sense of motion which the waves convey, and in the fluidity and transparency of the water. Note, also, that though evidently done with extremest speed, how finely the sky is rendered, and what an utter absence there is through- out the study of any attempt to do more than get at the very heart of the subject. As a piece of pure water-colour sketching, this is, we repeat, the finest thing in the Exhibition. It is not, perhaps, more perfect of its kind than the sketch of Mr. Thorne Waite's, which we mentioned at the begin- ning of our notice; but it has this great added merit, that Mr. Thorne Waite's drawing dealt only with a permanent character of landscape, which might, and did, remain quiet while he sketched it ; and that Mr. Henry Moore's subject-matter was tossing him and itself about as hard as it could go the whole time, and altering every minute.
The best of the architectural, or semi-architectural subjects, is undoubtedly Mr. Henry Henshall's study of an old farm-house, with two small figures in the foreground, which he calls "Gatley Old Hall, Cheshire." This has that peculiarity of treatment, strong almost to brusquerie, which marks so many figure- painters when they do landscape work. It only just saves itself, half-a-dozen times over, from being crude and almost coarse. But it does save itself ; and the result is a curious, strong, picturesque drawing, full of detail which is carefully noted, and most boldly expressed ; full of rich pieces of colour, insufficiently harmonised for a completed picture, but pleasant enough in a sketch, from the information they afford tt about the subject. And in the figures of the man and woman, Mr. Henshall seems to us to have struck exactly the right note. They have just a touch which redeems them from the common- place ; and yet they do not interfere with the main subject of the drawing.
All the rest of our old friends we can do little more than mention in the short space at our disposal. Walter Duncan is here, shrieking (from a pictorial point of view) with delight at the dusky beauties, rich garments, and waving palm-trees of Bengal. Mrs. Allingham is still sketching under English chestnut-trees, or on the beach, where her pretty children look prettier than ever; Fred Tayler's white horses, and Sir John Gilbert's grey and cream-coloured ones, still carry their riders out hawking, or into the thick of the battle ; George Andrews is still, with a rainbow for a palette, painting his bright seas, brighter houses, and brightest sky ; Collingwood Smith and Richardson still show us marvels of manipulative skill, directed, as we believe, to a wrong purpose, but still attractive to a great many people; Lockhart, "of the Scotch Academy, still tries to make water-colours do the work of oil, and almost succeeds; Alfred Hunt is still giving us bits of England, old castles, and misty, red-roofed houses, and grey-green, wide- spreading sands. And so on, throughout the list. In fact, the members of the old Water-Colour Society are in their work very much what they have been for years past, and take us to-day, as they have so frequently taken as before, by the old ways in the old manner.