Europe Day on 9th May commemorates French foreign minister Robert Schuman’s 1950 speech which spoke of the bloc ushering in a whole new era of political cooperation, just five years after the end of the Second World War. While the UK may have been politically set adrift of the union, geographically we are still very much neighbours.
This edition of Digging The Archive! gives us an opportunity to appreciate the treasures of Europe courtesy of some lovingly handpicked pieces from the Walker Art Gallery’s incredible collection.
Jessie Petheram, Assistant Curator of Fine Art, Walker Art Gallery:
“Europe feels very far away at the moment, but fortunately the Walker Art Gallery’s collection of watercolours, drawings, prints and photographs is here to help. British artists have been choosing the cities and sites of Europe as a subject for their work for centuries, and their travels brought the benefits of cultural exchange too. France and Italy have always been popular destinations, but there are views of places further afield in our collection too.
There are over 8000 works on paper in the collection, meaning this is a mere glimpse at the delights contained within. We are working to digitise them all though, so watch this space!”
The Doge’s Palace, Venice by JMW Turner, 1840 (ink and watercolour on paper). We’ll start with a classic: a popular tourist destination then and now, Venice has long been a hotspot for artists (frankly there was an excess of material to choose from depicting Venice). Turner made three trips to the Italian city, the watery setting marrying perfectly with his skill in the medium of watercolour. Here, it might be early morning on a soon-to-be-hot day, the gondoliers gathering to ferry tourists along the canals. The buildings seem to melt into the pale water and the light is luminous and hazy. This watercolour is from Turner’s last trip in 1840 and was intended as a colour study for future use. It is thought to have been part of a sketchbook now in the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain, London.
Interior of Santa Sophia, Constantinople by John Frederick Lewis, about 1840 (pencil and watercolour on paper). Lewis lived in Cairo for ten years and is now known for his meticulous, jewel-like paintings of ‘exotic’ harem girls and desert encampments. This sketch of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (then Constantinople) was made when he stayed briefly in the city on the journey from London to Cairo. As suggested by this drawing, Lewis tended to focus on architecture rather than people.
Cattaro, Yugoslavia by Edward Lear, 1866 (pen, ink, watercolour and gouache on paper). Lear is probably better known as a nonsense poet, but he was an accomplished artist, excelling in fluid, atmospheric sketches and watercolours made on his extensive travels in Italy, Eastern Europe, and North Africa. Kotor, in what is now Montenegro, was known at the time by its Italian name, Cattaro. Lear had a habit of heavily annotating his drawings so that he could work them up into finished works in the studio – he often signed them with the exact date and time of creation, giving them a vividness and immediacy which is certainly appreciated by this curator in isolation!
Street at Saverne by James McNeill Abbott Whistler, 1858 (etching on paper). The American artist Whistler was influenced by art movements in Europe, and he spent a lot of time on the continent. This view of Saverne in north-eastern France was made during Whistler’s etching tour of the Rhineland between 14 August and 7 October 1858. Whistler was instrumental in reviving interest in the art of etching and the Walker has a large collection of Whistler’s etchings.
Garden, Vence’ by Elizabeth Blackadder, 1965 (watercolour on paper). Not Venice this time, but Vence in the south of France. Blackadder is now known for her exquisitely stylised still life watercolours, showing flowers and decorative objects carefully arranged to create an elegant flat pattern. During the 1950s and 1960s, she made several trips to Europe and produced many sketches and paintings while travelling. This was created fairly early in Blackadder’s career and instead of her later sparseness, she uses large areas of rich fluid colour. I think it successfully captures the deep, close atmosphere of a warm summer night, possibly after one or two glasses of delicious French wine.
Etaples, Moonlight by E C Austen Brown, date unknown (woodcut on paper). Etaples is near Calais on the Normandy coast. E C Austen Brown was an important British artist during the early 20th century, though she is not widely known today. Her work was included in many important exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale in 1900 and later in 1909. This is a typical example of the coloured Japanese woodcut technique. For this method a wooden block is engraved with a design, including details and outlines. Colour is then added by mixing water-based paint with rice paste, which is then brushed onto the block.