Monday, April 4, 2011

The Wonders of Watercolour: Sir Charles Bell painting on loan at Tate Britain

Watercolour. What is it good for? Absolutely everything! Or so it seems. The versatility of this medium is explored in the all-embracing Watercolour exhibition at Tate Britain until 21 August 2011.

Eight differently themed rooms demonstrate, for example, how watercolour has been used for precise depiction of the natural world, evocative scenes of travel and distant landscapes, and eccentric, charming or disturbing versions of ‘Inner Vision’. A room devoted to ‘Watercolour and War’ includes works ranging from the grotesque carnivalistic scenes of Edward Burra (1905-1976) to graphic depictions of horrific war wounds. In this latter category hangs one of the Battle of Waterloo casualties painted by Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842).

This particular image, selected from an extensive series of Bell watercolours (RAMC/95) held by the Wellcome Library on behalf of the Army Medical Services Museum, shows a soldier suffering the effects of a sabre wound to the stomach, Peltier, Belgian Hospital, 2 July 1815. Lying on his back, shirt pulled up to show what looks like parts of his innards, the soldier’s muted agony and despairing fear is also captured.

Bell’s talent for conveying emotion can be more closely examined in his works on the anatomy and physiology of expression, copies of which are held by the Wellcome Library, including Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting (1806) and Essays on the Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression (1824).

His prolific illustrations of the human body, the human hand, the brain, the arteries and surgical procedures of course also form part of the holdings of the Wellcome Library’s Rare Books Collection and the Paintings, Prints and Drawings Collection.

Exhibition-goers and students of the illustration of war wounds may also be interested in the images hanging next to the Bell watercolour at Tate Britain: First World War facial injuries and reconstructions, which have been loaned to the Tate by the Gillies Archive, Queen Mary’s Hospital Sidcup, Kent.

This is the second loan from the Bell waterclours at the moment (we described the other back in a post late last year). Catalogue descriptions of the entire series of Battle of Waterloo watercolours by Charles Bell held in the RAMC archive can be found by searching the Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue, entering RAMC/95 in the 'Reference' search box. Researchers should note that due to the fragile condition of the original watercolour paintings photographic reproductions only are normally provided for consultation in the Rare Materials Room. However, bonafide research requests to view the originals will be considered.


- Sabre wound to abdomen, Peltier, Belgian Hospital, 2 July 1815. From Sir Charles Bell's watercolours of wounds sustained by soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo, 1815 (RAMC/95)

- A terrified man holding up his hands. From Charles Bell, 'Essays on the Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression' (1824)

Author: Amanda Engineer

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