It is a matter of fine judgement who was Britain’s greatest watercolour painter. Some, including Turner, would say Girtin. As he put it, with generous exaggeration: ‘If Tom Girtin had lived, I should have starved.’ There is general agreement that Girtin’s The White House at Chelsea is the best English work ever painted in watercolour (it is now in the Tate). John Sell Cotman would be given the accolade by some. Both were tragic figures. Girtin died when only twenty-seven. Cotman found it almost impossible to sell the works of his best period, and had to coarsen his style. The third claimant to the title, Richard Parkes Bonington, was also tragic, dying of TB a month before his twenty-sixth birthday. But during his short life he was immensely productive, successful and influential. He has now been given the accolade of one of Yale’s magnificent catalogues raisonnés. It describes in detail about 400 works which can with confidence be attributed to Bonington, reproducing all of them, 350 in colour. The reproductions are on the whole superb; the text by Patrick Noon, who has devoted a quarter-century to studying Bonington, is a first-class exercise in erudition and perception; and (not least) this handsome volume is strongly bound and will survive intact many years of handling and perusal.
Bonington would be my choice as our best landscape painter in watercolour, bearing in mind that he could work with equal skill in oils, like Turner and Constable. Unlike them, however, he was also a notable figure painter. Indeed, simply as a craftsman he was an all-rounder of