I had been rather looking forward to the annual Richard McDougall lecture on British watercolours, as during my time at studying for a BA at Manchester in 2008, there was a particularly rewarding exhibition running at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Walter Crane and Socialism. It introduced to me the extraordinary breadth and beauty of Crane’s output, a truly thoughtful and polemical High Victorian. Meaning is woven throughout his works, ranging from Socialist banners to children’s books, forging a broad, personal visual language not dissimilar to William Blake. Little did I realise the curator of this exhibition was tonight’s speaker, Morna O’Neill, the top authority on this otherwise rather neglected figure.
In a photograph of Crane’s studio in 1885, the oil Freedom sits opposite his watercolour Pandora, the latter not distinguished by embodying the Aesthetic dictum “art for art’s sake”, but instead just as didactic as the oil. Crane encouraged the act of connoisseurship as a way to knowledge, and many details in Pandora act as emblems towards a theme of universal Hope. Particularly resonant for Crane are the sphinxes which hold up the eponymous box: ciphers for individualism against the Orpheic artist’s dream of Socialism. But all this begs the question: why choose watercolour at all? The nineteenth-century British watercolour is a strange thing, as was explored by Colin Cruise at last year’s lecture. Burne-Jones’ The Merciful Knight, bravely exhibited at the Old Water Colour Society in 1864, was one of the first works to challenge what watercolour could be. It was in this context that Crane would develop his own concept of an Arts and Crafts watercolour.
It is rather a paradox to suggest that watercolour’s medium specificity is fluidity and ambiguity, but its role for Crane was a site of experimentation and self-referentiality. This reminded me again of Cruise’s lecture, where in Rossetti’s early watercolour, The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice, Dante is shown working in the medium in which he is painted. Crane was less direct in his reflexivity. In Pandora the mosaics of the floor and the curtain were based on Crane’s own objects that were originally designed in watercolour. Crane used watercolour extensively to provide designs for the production of Decorative arts, and also of his tremendously beautiful children’s books. Crane’s Art’s and Crafts watercolour then works as bridging the gap between designer and maker, not an end in itself, but a means to an ideal as yet unrealised.
Surprisingly, Morna spent much time on the iconography of Crane’s works, and less on the specific painterly potentiality of watercolour, although this was explored in the evanescent visionary reverie in the Youthful Poet’s Dream (1869). Yet the central issue of Crane’s exploration of the dynamic between illustration and narrative: the act of looking as a way to knowledge, is very reassuring to any art historian who still likes looking at paintings. And one hopes Morna can see the Pandora itself soon as a way to knowledge, as currently it sits in a very private collection…