James Fletcher-Watson: The Magic of Watercolour

Like so many innovations, look at it now and this has more than a slightly dated look and, indeed, seems almost quaint. The slightly over-large serif type and the blue band in the running heads – indeed, the fact that it has running heads at all, give it a slightly over-designed feel. Even the (short) foreword by Hugh Casson was there as belt-and-braces. It also comes as quite a shock to discover just how much black & white there is here, too. Before coming back to the book, if you’d asked, I’d have said it was all colour.

So, what makes it a classic? I said in the introduction to this series that authorship can be one of the qualifying factors and I believe that James is one of the leading contenders for a medal on that score. He very much took on the mantle of Edward Wesson, who in fact encouraged him to teach, and the suppers on the opening nights of his exhibitions included many of Wesson’s former students. James’s teaching method was very gentle – he never referred to students, but to his “painting friends”, who came away from his courses remembering a word of encouragement that was worth hours of practical instruction.

Magic, appearing in 1987, was James’s third book and also one of the first UK publications to contain any quantity of colour – his previous two had had no more than 16 plates on 8 pages, typical of their time. This one was, in fact, a make-or-break for its publisher Batsford and that, in part, explains the heavy design: they threw everything at it and, if it hadn’t succeeded, it would have been their last art publication.

There was, of course, no real danger of that happening. Although they’re really only curiosities now, James’s first two books had sold well and this was what he’d been building up to. Even the title was perfect, though there was a last-minute wobble when Batsford suddenly wondered whether they should have something more descriptive and painfully long-winded. James was aghast and I can also claim to have played a small part in nerves being steadied.

Yes, of course it flew off the shelves. It was the right book by the right person presented in the right way at the right time. How could it not succeed? It is, in an ironic way, a measure of just how much James put into it that his subsequent books were quite hard to shift. Yes, there were production difficulties, but that wasn’t the only reason. Offered Outdoor Painting or The Secret of Watercolour, people tended to say, “I’ve already got a book by that author”. I’ve never really understood what went wrong. It wasn’t that James was past his sell-by date or that authors can only manage one book – many lesser artists have sold dozens of almost identical titles. I suspect it comes down to the feeling that everything you need is here, that you don’t just not need another JFW book, but maybe not another book at all (and isn’t that the publisher’s nightmare?).

That, I hope, explains why this has to have classic status. The truth, though, is that if you asked me which one of James’s books you should buy, I’d recommend James Fletcher Watson’s Watercolour Secrets, the revised edition of The Secret of Watercolour with re-originated illustrations. It came a full fifteen years after Magic and just looks and feels better to a contemporary reader and is, of course, illustrated in full colour. But I’d also say that you really should take Magic to the till as well.

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