A Rage for the Lakes

Today we went to see “A Rage for the Lakes” at the Barber Institute, an exhibition of drawings and watercolours of the Lake District, from Abbott Hall Art Gallery. The exhibition closes tomorrow, so we were cutting it fine, but after our lovely trip to the Lakes last year I was determined to get to see it! It’s only a small exhibition, but is filled with 40 works by painters drawn to the Lakes when its popularity increased in the late eighteenth century through to the mid-nineteenth.

Interestingly, the first thing that struck me when I went into the exhibition was how many of the pictures were rather monochromatic – not just sketches, but misty, muted colours in the watercolours, too. Consequently, those which did use true colour stood out – for example, John Harden, whose wife apparently said that he was unusual for doing his “colours on the spot” rather than waiting until he got home – which perhaps accounts for his vivid and realist use of colour. Joseph Arthur Severn’s painting “Coniston from Brantwood” (Severn was the wife of Ruskin’s cousin Joan, and thus lived at Brantwood for a while) shows some amazing Autumnal colours across Coniston. But the rest, even Ruskin’s own, are muted, somehow very English-style images of what is actually not a very English subject – the mountains, lakes and clouds in, for example, those by Joseph Wright of Derby, are not unlike his paintings of Italian lakes and mountains.

The three Ruskin pictures – one sketch and two watercolours – are of Coniston from his turret at Brantwood, where he could see the sun rise, and one watercolour shows just that, the changing effects of the sky and the water. I was also very taken with Edward Lear’s paintings – associating him, as everyone does, I suppose, with something rather more frivolous, it was fascinating to see his lively but serious depictions of the Lakes scenery with their louring clouds and unruffled water. Other artists included are Thomas Hearne, Turner, Constable and WJ Blacklock (the last of these had quite the bluest sky of any painting there). One day I shall have to go to Kendal to see the paintings in their home with the Lakeland Arts Trust.


  1. Great that you got there before it closed 🙂

    Was the mistiness and lack of vivid colour a disappointment? I am not sure if you are proposing that the mutedness was a result of the use of watercolours as opposed to oils, or if it was part of the contemporary romantic notions of the Lakes.

    I wouldn’t have known about Arthur Severn’s work, except that his studio at Brantwood happened to have a display of his works when we visited. The estate is a delight.

  2. I’m not sure that I know myself – partly of course the mutedness was watercolour-based, but I think it is more than that – when I was in the Lakes I was impressed by the beautiful swirling mists and the muted colours, but they did seem somehow too muted in the exhibition. Yes, probably it was about romantic notions of the Lakes!

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