The most important stimulus to the development of highly wrought watercolours, and one of the crucial developments in Victorian watercolour practice, was the introduction in 1834 of zinc white (known as Chinese white). By mixing white with watercolour pigments, artists were able to create opaque colour or ‘bodycolour’ (also known by the French term ‘gouache’), which could be applied more thickly with the brush so that the white of the paper did not shine through. It was especially useful for creating vivid contrasts, stronger colour and more precise rendering of detail and texture.
Bodycolour was avidly seized upon by many artists and became a key ingredient of the labour-intensive style of such painters as William Henry Hunt, Myles Birket Foster and Charles Robertson. However, its use was a matter of heated debate. For purists like Thackeray it represented a corrupting influence. ‘A number of water-colour artists’, he warned in 1846, ‘are now dipping into this dangerous white-pot, and the peculiar charm of their branch of the art is ruined by the use of it. It is as if a guitar-player persisted in performing an oratorio: they are always taxing their powers beyond their strength…’
Ruskin, on the other hand endorsed it wholeheartedly in his widely consulted manual, The elements of drawing (1857), as a useful aid to the faithful transcription of nature: ‘This mixing of white with the pigments, so as to render them opaque, constitutes body-colour drawing as opposed to transparent-colour drawing, and you will, perhaps, have it often said to you that this body-colour is illegitimate. It is just as legitimate as oil-painting, being, so far as handling is concerned, the same process, only without its uncleanliness, its unwholesomeness, or its inconvenience.’
Meanwhile, watercolours began to reach unprecedented dimensions, with many exceeding a metre in length. The Victorian preoccupation with size required artists to prepare their painting supports by stretching and fixing the paper to wooden backing boards. In many cases paper was attached like a canvas to a strainer before the unsightly paper edges were either trimmed away or wrapped behind.
Artists also sought to give their watercolours greater prominence on gallery walls by presenting them behind glass in ornate carved and gilded frames with wide gold mounts, which emphasised the value of the works of art they surrounded and added to their ostentatious appearance (such as Charles Robertson's Bazaar gossip).