Whimsical, wondrous and winsome. British watercolours are all that – or, is it a matter of taste? Guest curator Annika Sippel talks about exhibiting works from the Archdeacon Smythe collection, in order to show the unexpected versatility of the medium and the taste of the collector.
The exhibition A Fluid Art: Watercolours 1778-1900 was born from my PhD thesis on the collection of British watercolours, amassed and gifted by the private collector Francis Henry Dumville Smythe (1873-1966). When I first suggested this topic to my university supervisor, he replied: “Well, that isn’t very sexy.”
I suppose he was right, as British watercolours do have a reputation for being somewhat old-fashioned. And when I started investigating, I found that Smythe himself appeared pretty old-fashioned too.
Looking at the large number of faded and browned landscapes in the collection, I surmised that he had rather conventional and, perhaps, boring tastes.
However, I was in for a surprise. Diving deeper into the collection revealed fascinating aspects about the medium and artists that could easily be overlooked.
Not only does the collection showcase different artistic styles that were popular (and unpopular) during the 1700s-1900s, the artists themselves also present narratives engaging with issues around gender and professionalism.
These are some of the ideas and themes I was keen to highlight in the exhibition.
Introducing Smythe and his Gift
But first, a little about Smythe. His life spanned turbulent and changing times in Britain, including the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and both World Wars.
As a busy and prominent clergyman with limited financial means, Smythe took almost 50 years building his collection of watercolours.
Around the time of his retirement in 1946, he started donating his collection away to British galleries and museums. But when Dunedin Public Art Gallery curator Annette Pearse (1893-1981) arrived in England in 1951, Smythe started considering New Zealand as an adequate future home for his ‘art children’.
Pearse and Smythe struck up a friendship that led to the first parcel of watercolours arriving in Dunedin in 1952, and eventually resulted in over 1,500 works being gifted to New Zealand. Most of these are in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery collection, but 339 works were gifted to the National Art Gallery (now Te Papa) in 1956-1957.
The Gallery Director at the time, Stewart Maclennan (1903-1973), exchanged many letters with Smythe, assuring him that the watercolours were most welcome and appreciated.
However, the popularity of the collection would fade, as curators became more concerned with local art and artists, rather than looking ‘Home’ for artistic inspiration.
Conservative meets Modern
Revisiting Smythe’s collection in the 2020s, I was able to think about it differently, and in A Fluid Art, I made a selection of works that demonstrate the richness of Smythe’s collection.
Although Smythe was collecting during the early twentieth century, he gravitated towards an older Victorian style, which preferred the highly finished, often figurative, watercolours of artists like the Pre-Raphaelites or George Kilburne.
In The River, Kilburne’s woman sits leisurely on the grass. Her elegant blue dress, complete with white lace trimmings and gold jewellery, indicates her higher social status. She almost blends into the landscape, which the artist has depicted with great detail and realism.
Compare this with another landscape in the collection, Lake Scene, this time by the wealthy amateur artist Hercules Brabazon. Kilburne’s delicate brushwork has been replaced with broad washes of colour, and Brabazon has applied the paint quickly without any regard for detail. The colours are bleeding into each other, and the shapes of trees and plants are sketchy and unfinished.
Smythe’s taste is therefore not easily defined. On the one hand, his interest in Victorian watercolours was not trendy at all during the early 1900s. On the other hand, he did follow popular trends such as collecting works like Brabazon’s which reflected the sketch aesthetic that many contemporary artists were experimenting with during the twentieth century.
Watercolour means Business
I was also keen to think about the different functions watercolour was used for, as well as the artists who made these works.
While Smythe’s collection does not boast a large number of women artists, some, like the book-illustrator Kate Greenaway, show that women watercolourists could also be professionals.
Children Playing is a romanticised view of rural life in an industrial age. By using simplified flat blocks of colour and clear outlines, Greenaway also thought about the work’s intended final form as a print. This style made the work of the printmaker later on much easier.
Walter Crane was another artist who often collaborated with other craftsmen as part of commercial business transactions. He used watercolour to create designs for stained glass, tiles, pottery, wallpapers and textiles.
Such designs became popular collector’s items, just as sketches did. This costume design uses bold, opaque colours on dark paper, devoid of any background.
I hope that this exhibition will bring the Smythe collection back into our minds and reveal that Smythe’s tastes weren’t as old-fashioned as originally thought and that it will expose some new insights into the wide world of watercolour.
Making an Exhibition
Working on this show gave me an amazing opportunity to curate an exhibition. While I discovered that deciding on the content is easy enough (especially if you have a PhD thesis to work with!), it’s what came afterwards which challenged me most and made me think about exhibitions in new ways.
We decided early on that the wall should be painted – these watercolours were coming out of storage with a bang! But unlike the traditional dark red or green which one might expect with works of this age, we wanted something more contemporary and eye-catching. Resene’s ‘Sakura’ complemented the various pink tones in some of the works perfectly, and of course, it also matches my personal wardrobe.
It was fascinating having to pick frames and mounting mats, deciding the way the works should be hung on the wall, where to place the labels, and choosing a title. Besides making sure the text of the labels wasn’t too long (again, especially if you have a PhD thesis to work with!), the title was probably the most difficult.
In the end, A Fluid Art aims to convey not just the physical nature of this water-based medium, but also the aesthetic, thematic and contextual versatility of historical watercolours.