‘His works of the late 1880s and 1890s are extraordinary in their pellucid quality of light and their exact delineation of architectural and landscape detail.'
These four works are by one of the most remarkable watercolourists of the late nineteenth century, William Fraser Garden. Almost unknown in his own lifetime, Garden produced a sequence of watercolours which are startling for their haunting effect and technical virtuosity. Garden worked slowly and meticulously, producing a relatively small number of beautiful atmospheric watercolours which have long been highly prized by collectors. This small exhibition brings together four of these rare works from a private collection.
Garden was born into a large family of artists of Scottish descent. His father Robert Winchester Fraser was an army surgeon, who settled in Bedford in 1861. In order to differentiate himself from his five artist brothers, Garden William Fraser used the name William Fraser Garden. Garden spent all his life painting the flat fen landscape of the Great Ouse, living in a series of houses between Bedford and Huntingdon, ending up bankrupt, lodging at the Ferry Boat Inn at Hemingford Grey. Garden had little professional success in his lifetime, he sent a series of watercolours to the Royal Academy during the 1880s but achieved no critical attention and little commercial success.
These four works were painted between 1882 and 1892 and all show Garden’s fascination with the silhouette of trees in a winter landscape, minutely depicting their bare branches against the failing light. In each work Garden observes leafless trees against the sky, so that their trunks and lower branches appear flattened into an intricate architectural tracery. Each is minutely observed, but essentially simple in design. Despite the silhouetted effect, the trees are not without colour, the trunks being an acid green and the branches and twigs brown, with a high proportion of gum Arabic in the mix. The framing of Garden’s composition suggests he was much influenced by photography. By the time Garden was painting, photography was widely available, and the potential of the medium was already decisively affecting the way landscape painters approached the world. Atkinson Grimshaw, for example, relied heavily on photographs to produce his city nocturns, often with a similar tracery of leafless branches silhouetted against an acid night sky. From its inception, photographic pioneers had been fascinated by the medium’s ability to successful capture the complex lattice of branches against the sky. In the 1850s Benjamin Brecknell Turner, for example, produced a series of photographs of pollarded trees and bare winter canopies.
These four watercolours demonstrate the care of Garden’s technical approach. Using watercolour and carefully chosen paper, Garden portrays the effect of winter afternoon sun by extraordinary means. In three of the group, Garden uses bands of wash on the reverse of the paper to aid the gradation from dense foreground vegetation, to the limpid afternoon sky which bleeds from pale pink to richer blue. The network of branches are created with rich areas of watercolour and gum Arabic, Garden’s meticulous delineation of each branch never lapses into derivativeness, preserving a fresh organic quality throughout. In the largest of the sheets A Tree on the Banks of the Great Ouse, Garden has flooded the paper with a subtle foundation of wash to capture the fading light and its reflection on the river, he has then carefully built up the network of branches using watercolour wash and careful ink lines.
Garden was a master of watercolour technique, a perfectionist and an innovator. His landscapes, in their verisimilitude and precision, capture unerringly the feeling of an afternoon in Winter in the flat landscape of East Anglia. Garden’s work moved in a decisively different direction from the trajectory of British watercolour art, away from an aesthetic that privileged fleeting impressions made on the spot, towards a more solid vision, inflected by the rise of photography. Garden’s work revels in atmospheric effect, but it is effect that was hard won through laborious work in the studio.
These crepuscular watercolours are staggeringly powerful works. It is not surprising that Garden was rediscovered in the twentieth century by pioneering collectors, including Stanley Seeger and Christopher Cone who owned A Recollection of Stevington, Bedfordshire. At their best, Garden’s works completely escape the conventions of Victorian watercolour painting, there is a strangeness and preternatural sense of silence in his Winter landscapes which looks beyond stylistic schools and national boundaries.
 Scott Wilcox and Christopher Newall, Victorian Landscape Watercolours, exh. cat., New Haven (Yale Center for British Art), 1992, p.172.