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“I gave all I had to Cambridge and Oxford, not generously, but because to think of Venice now is mere misery to me.” So it happened that the two universities possess some of Turner’s loveliest watercolours, donated by his champion, the artist and critic John Ruskin.

The Stones of Venice recounts Ruskin’s intense love and bitter disillusion with a city whose physical degradation for him mirrored 19th-century cultural and moral decline. He found consolation for a while in Turner’s interpretations of Venice, “dreamlike and dim, but glorious”. In the tranquil “Venice, Calm at Sunrise”, long reflections in pale morning light render the city a mirage, the forms of San Giorgio and its campanile just defined in pen and ink over colour washes floated across the paper. Its turbulent, vigorous opposite, “Venice, Storm at Sunset”, is just as visionary: the city dissolves in mist, with bright highlights thickly scratched into the paper surface with Turner’s thumbnail.

These are among the great works that in 1861 became the foundation of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s distinguished watercolour collection. Rarely displayed — most pieces have been unseen for decades — it goes on show this week in Watercolour: Elements of Nature, an exhibition both ravishing and conceptually strong in its juxtapositions.

Next to Turner’s Venice disappearing in a vortex hangs Ruskin’s own jewel-like watercolour of the fashionable waterfront “Riva degli Schiavoni, the Ducal Palace and the Campanile of St Marks” — “the best colour study I made”, Ruskin said. Architectural in impetus and marvellously at odds, in its clarity of outline and deliberate definition, with works by Ruskin’s hero, its careful differentiation between shades of stone and painstaking depiction, tile by tile, of the coral pink Doge’s Palace give an almost enchanted realism.

Ruskin loved Turner’s sublime late landscapes — “supremely, and with reviving power, beautiful” — but saw them with Victorian eyes, searching for their naturalistic impulse. Before giving the Fitzwilliam a wonderful example of his favourite motif, “Flüelen from the Lake”, which shows the town’s baroque church and medieval keep looming behind a sweeping, swirling mass of agitated water, Ruskin made a pilgrimage to the little town at Lucerne’s southern tip to seek Turner’s exact location. But it was in vain: “There is no point from which he could have got his view,” he concluded. “He supposes himself in the air.”

Turner’s ‘Fluelen from the Lake’ (1840-1843)

This paradox resonates across the Fitzwilliam’s sparkling show: how watercolour allows unrivalled, direct, unmediated depictions of the world yet, by its characteristics of evanescence and insubstantial, fugitive effects of transparent films of colour, gives scope for imaginary evocation and poetic allusion.

The ambiguity made the medium particularly attractive to the British Romantics and mystics at the core of Cambridge’s collection. John Cozens’ “Lake Nemi” is structured to draw out the underlying formal elements of the volcanic lake while also registering meditative stillness in thin washes of muted colour. Although his style can be rudimentary, Cozens pioneered the atmospheric effects which defined 19th-century British watercolour; Constable called him “the greatest genius that ever touched landscape”.

Cambridge elegantly traces the diverse techniques with which Cozens’ immediate successors experimented. Peter De Wint’s “Sketch of a Tree and Hull of a Boat at Mooring” is so fluid and simplified that it calls to mind Chinese landscapes. In “Postwick Grove” and “The Bass Rock”, John Sell Cotman carefully delineated Norfolk’s coastline, then used sponges and bread to soften the forms, leaving abstract blots and swaths of dense, rich blue. Abundant fruit, wooded hills, ripe golden corn and large woolly sheep are all unnaturally bright, intensely coloured in praise of God’s munificence, in Samuel Palmer’s rhapsodic “The Magic Apple Tree”.

The broad arc of this show spans watercolour’s evolution from documentary to expressive, with Turner, via Impressionism, the fulcrum for modern transformations of the medium. For Cézanne, seeking to express transient sensations and their rhythms and patterning, watercolour offered the opportunity to hold drawing and painting, line and colour, in changing equilibrium. Light graphite pencil marks contrast with diluted watery patches of colour in “The Woods, Aix-en-Provence” and “Flowers in a Jar” — precise constructions which nevertheless, with large areas of blank paper, feel improvisatory, instantaneous.

“Paper barely covered with 20 touches of watercolour — 20 certainties — 20 victories,” wrote Paul Signac of Cézanne’s suggestive forms. His own watercolours, as in “Fishing Boats”, have a spontaneity far from the rigorous design of his pointillist oils; Signac tried to combine influences of the “idealist” Turner, “realist” Jongkind and “analyst” Cézanne into something unpredictable and accidental, using smooth paper that would not absorb the wash too quickly, allowing it to settle in “little ponds” that shape-shifted as they dried.

Samuel Palmer’s ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ (1830) Andrew Norman

Watercolour Liberated, the Fitzwilliam’s final section, dramatises with flair how the medium could thus release 20th-century artists from the constraints of their usual practice. The canal traffic in John Singer Sargent’s “Giudecca” and the harbour in “Palma Majorca”, both painted from low points on a boat, are brilliant summary renderings — “water wetter than water”, a contemporary critic commented. They are characterised by the odd angles and perspectives, close-ups and cropping, abstraction and visible brush marks that make Sargent’s watercolours belong to modernity as his portraits never do. Walter Sickert called the effects “slapdash”, but especially when anchored by architectural elements, as in “The Spanish Fountain”, Sargent’s compositions are orchestrated with terrific sureness of touch: the cooling effect of the rippled water reflected in curled strokes of white bodycolour on the fountain basin; light and shadow playing between arches and columns. “To live with Sargent’s watercolours is to live with sunshine captured and held,” wrote the artist’s friend Evan Charteris.

This is a delightful exhibition whose only disappointment is that, after striking works by Paul Nash — another artist freed by watercolour to lightness of touch and even fantasy in the near-surreal “Monster Field” and “Bright Cloud” — and charming maverick David Jones (the puzzle-like “Shepherdess”, a decorative interior built around a porcelain figure), it peters out in the postwar period and has just one, indifferent, contemporary piece.

This reflects both the 20th-century decline of the medium and current economic austerity. But watercolour has a place in late Modernism — David Hockney’s virtuoso recent landscapes, Peter Doig’s limpid unresolved early versions of major paintings, Sigmar Polke’s experiments — and as a space for working out ideas among young painters (such as the excellent Nick Goss) who are developing a collapsed, provisional figuration derived from multimedia sources. The Fitzwilliam needs just a few inspired donations/acquisitions for this superb collection to be brought up to date.

‘Watercolour: Elements of Nature’, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, to September 27, fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Photographs: Courtesy of The Fitzwilliam Museum

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