The Museum's superb collection of watercolours shows the range and breadth of this very popular British medium. Watercolour has been prized by artists for its delicacy and luminosity. Effects of brilliancy and clarity are achieved by the layering of semi-transparent washes of pure colour on white or tinted paper.
Watercolour is a versatile medium, allowing a number of different effects to be produced through the use of various techniques. This versatility, alongside the medium's small scale, and relative cheapness compared to oil paint, has added to its popularity.
Over the centuries, a wide range of artists have used watercolour. Medieval artists in Britain used the medium to illuminate manuscripts. Later in the 17th century watercolour was used by artists painting portrait miniatures. It was not until the 18th century, however, that a particularly British watercolour tradition began to develop.
The collection of watercolours features work by John White Abbott, Francis Towne, Samuel Prout, William Payne and George Townsend, as well as work by John Constable, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Frederick John Widgery and Edward Burra.
The period between 1750 and 1850 is known as the Golden Age of British Watercolours. At the beginning of this period, watercolour was used to represent topographical views, mainly picturesque views of town and country. At first, artists used watercolour to add colour to line drawings. Still working within the ‘tinted drawing' tradition, Francis Towne and John White Abbott explored the more painterly effects which could be achieved with watercolour.
As artists began to explore the possibilities of the medium further, drawing became less important. By the 1800s, the British watercolour tradition was at its peak. Artists John Constable, Joseph Mallord and William Turner exploited the full potential of the medium to realise atmospheric effects of light and weather conditions.
As well as reflecting the development of the medium, the Museum's watercolour collection tells the story of its use in representing Devon and Exeter from the 18th century to the present day. The works demonstrate the special and long-lasting relationship of watercolour artists with the unique Devon landscape.