V&A strangles its watercolours with artspeak

Illustrations partially compensate for jargon



A new catalogue of some of the finest watercolours in the Victoria and Albert Museum highlights the diversity and richness of this collection, as well as the folly of applying a certain type of art history to a medium that suits it ill. Written by Lewis Johnson, the opening paragraph sets out the book’s premise: “The possibility, however, that the lack of an understanding of histories of the modern and the progressive as notions in the criticism of art might make recognition of the occurrence and return less likely suggests that an inquiry into surprising identification of watercolour painting might be more than a mere diversion or entertainment.” Unfortunately the individual entries for the watercolours contain quite a lot of this sort of thing too. However, great images such as Rowlandson’s “Vauxhall Gardens” and Dighton’s “A Windy Day. Scene outside the shop of Bowles, the printseller, in Covent Garden”, make up for a lot. Too few colour illustrations. Prospects, Thresholds, Interiors is published by Cambridge University Press, has 250 pages, one hundred black and white and sixteen colours illustrations, and costs £19.95 paperback ($29.95), £45 hardback ($69.95). The accompanying exhibition at the V&A runs until 15 May.