For those in love with the grace of techniques and what is possible within the realm of watercolour, do make a visit to the Elements of Nature exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The show is creatively and intriguingly curated by Jane Munro, and described by the Sunday Times as 'Ravishing and conceptually strong', which is perhaps an understatement, because it really is a fabulous show.
The great thing here is that so many watercolour artists of high calibre are represented in this show, including two originals by the masterful and legendary P J Redouté. Those particularly interested in his flower painting can see two of the very well-known originals from the Fitzwilliam's own collection, as well as works by his pupils.
Whilst Durer is currently in fashion so far as often being granted a deservedly high status in the history of botanical art - even though he produced studies that make him more of a naturalistic painter - Redouté produced infinitely more flower paintings and botanical illustrations than Durer. Alas, he is not in vogue with the many botanical artists out there, but he has always been in vogue to the few, including myself.
The great thing about the inclusion of these two original watercolours in this show, is the fact that they are in the context of other great watercolours that are focused upon nature. It offers the Flower Painter’s art, represented by Redouté, as a part of the bigger picture of the watercolour tradition.
I breathed a sigh of relief, a sense of delight, and a perfect smile of regard for Redouté, who has stood the test of time, even though we often only know him by the endless chocolate box prints. He is the landmark icon of the great age of flower painting and part of a grand whole, not someone separated from the mainstream by the title botanical art and placed into a niche, but something of great power and passion that holds its own in the midst of it all.
The works on show are two famous pages, featuring a peony and a magnolia, so they have borders in line wash and gold leaf around the images, and the vellum is buckled. But don’t let this put you off, instead look deeper into how serene the techniques are and ponder on life the universe and everything through the eyes of the grandest flower painting master of them all, as he worked on these drawings, which were monumentally commissioned by the Empress Joséphine.
Thereafter, simply look around you at the entire room and take in the miracle of watercolour as a whole, and then walk on to observe the show cases nearby that reveal some fascinating early books written on how to paint in watercolour and the curious examples of early watercolour materials. You will not fail to be touched by the wonder of watercolour, and feel graced with its presence in your life.
This show continues until 27th September 2015.
Rosa Mme E. Calvat
Early study work 1990