Review

Renaissance Watercolours, V&A, review: Covid denies us the show of the year

3/5

This postponed exhibition could have been a triumph if there hadn't been a restriction on loans

A Huntsman With Dogs (design for a tapestry) by Jacob Jordaens
A Huntsman With Dogs (design for a tapestry) by Jacob Jordaens Credit: James Stevenson

The show must go on. That’s the spirit at the V&A this week, as it reopens its doors after the second, national lockdown.

About a year ago, the museum announced it would be staging a major exhibition dedicated to Renaissance watercolours. Scheduled to run this summer, it was to be one of the V&A’s highlights of 2020, featuring more than 200 works from significant collections worldwide.

Alas, due to Covid-induced restrictions on loans, the exhibition couldn’t go ahead as planned.  Postponed by several months – and with the £15 entrance fee scrapped – it now opens in a much-reduced form. The decision is that the show must go on: but with just 65 works, all of them from the V&A’s own holdings.

To be fair, the museum is home to the national watercolour collection, so those holdings are hardly weak. Plus, few of the works will be familiar to viewers. Watercolours are sensitive to light, meaning they’re seldom on view, particularly those that date as far back as the Renaissance. 

One revelation is Joris Hoefnagel’s rendering of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, so-called because apparently no residence on earth could rival it. The fabled palace would be demolished in the 1680s, and the Flemish artist’s watercolour is the earliest, surviving depiction of it.  

Revelation: Joris Hoefnagel’s rendering of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace in Surrey Credit: George Eksts/V&A

An aim of the exhibition is to correct the misconception that watercolour is an English art form, which emerged with the landscapes of JR Cozens and JMW Turner around the turn of the 19th Century. The medium has a much longer history and even existed in classical antiquity.

It came of age during the Renaissance – in part, say the curators, because its portable materials suited an era of unprecedented, international exchange. 

Some of the finest works on show are of flora and fauna: representations of which – true to the scientific enquiry of the age – became newly accurate in the Renaissance. There’s one memorable illustration by Vincenzo Leonardi, from a treatise on citrus fruit, of a charmingly deformed lemon. 

Charmingly deformed: Vincenzo Leonardi's Citrus medica (c 1640) Credit: Paul Robins

Animals were treated in a similarly analytical vein. Sadly, none of the marvellous watercolours by Dürer and his disciple, Hans Hoffman, of hares, squirrels and stag beetles have made it to London – contrary to the original plan.    

Watercolour was used for landscapes and miniature portraits too. Examples of the latter – such as François Clouet’s of the French queen Catherine de Medici in elaborate dress – often measure just five centimetres high and four across. It’s remarkable how so much detail could be achieved in so little space. 

Given its widespread adoption, why isn't watercolour as synonymous with the Renaissance as, say, painting and sculpture are? Well, presumably, first, because the medium’s fluidity means it lacks the same instant, visual punch; and second, because works haven’t been allowed the same exposure, for conservation reasons.

The history of Renaissance watercolours is a fascinating and under-appreciated one. It deserves a thoroughgoing treatment – something that 65 works just can’t provide. Many big-name Renaissance artists worked in the medium, van Dyck and Leonardo da Vinci among them. Both were meant to feature in the original exhibition and would have added some welcome stardust.

It feels wrong to lament a show that might have been, rather than review a show that actually is. So let’s say there are just about enough riches on view to suggest Covid-19 denied us what could have been the exhibition of the year.  

‘Renaissance Watercolours’, at V&A, London SW7, to May 2021; 020 7942 2000; vam.ac.uk