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Tate Britain makes a splash with watercolours

Curators set out to make watercolours cool - even the British landscapes

It is arguably one of the most ambitious surveys of watercolour staged in London but any visitor expecting safe, gentle and reserved should prepare for a surprise. "We do hope to confound preconceptions, yes," said chief curator Alison Smith.

Tate Britain on Millbank is staging a show simply called Watercolour, opening on Wednesday, which the curators hope will blow away the myths and falsehoods about a medium sometimes seen as very British, profoundly conservative and, to put it bluntly, not very cool.

"From the outset we wanted to get beyond the association of watercolour with landscape, which really defines British watercolour practice," said Smith. "We wanted to think about the longer, grander history."

It is a big show. On display are more than 200 works spanning 800 years. The diversity of the medium is striking. It is, of course, used for pretty landscapes and there are examples in the show. It is also used for scientific accuracy in botany, for abstract work and to document war.

There are shocking images, including an Eric Taylor painting of human bodies piled up at Belsen concentration camp. Another painting difficult to look at. by Charles Bell, is of wounds sustained by soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo, showing a French lancer who has had a sabre in his belly.

"I wanted to get beyond this idea that watercolour was used just for the softer subjects," said Smith. "Because watercolour is so flexible and direct it can be used to convey gritty subjects." It is also ideal for war because watercolour red pigment is good for blood and wounds.

Watercolour should not, the curators say, be seen as a standalone medium. One arresting work is Graham Sutherland's stage-like depiction of a bombed East End street from 1941, in which he has used gouache and crayon and pencil as well as watercolour.

Given the association of watercolour with British painters, another surprise is the identity of one of the earliest watercolour painters of British landscapes: the Flemish Anthony van Dyck. A coastal landscape painted between 1635 and 1641 is one of the first exhibits.

The show includes works by Turner, the pre-Raphaelites and Edward Burra as well as contemporary artists including Howard Hodgkin, Tracey Emin and Peter Doig.

Watercolour will always be seen as a preserve of the amateur – nobles, princes, people of leisure and murderous dictators can vouch for its restorative qualities – and there are examples in the show.

One of the better is Victor Hugo who experimented with blots, ink stains and even his own blood in his watercolours producing hundreds of works, all of which he kept to himself. The one on display at Tate Britain is a memory of a holiday in Normandy, executed when he was a political exile on Guernsey.

Smith hopes the show will challenge assumptions. "It is private, it's fragile, it's vulnerable. It doesn't have the kudos and commodity status of work in other media, it doesn't attract sensational media headlines but as people will see, it can be used in an extraordinary variety of ways."

Watercolour is at Tate Britain from 16 February to 21 August © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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