Despite the absence of big names and big things, or perhaps because of it, "English Drawings and Watercolors: 1630-1850," which opened yesterday at the National Gallery of Art, is a thoroughly fetching show.

Informative but not intimidating, the exhibition occupies three of the splendid graphics galleries on the ground floor of the West Building. All of the 60 artworks in it are owned by the gallery; most were acquired recently under the leadership of Andrew Robison, curator of prints and drawings, who determined to apply his high standards of connoisseurship to this widely uncelebrated field.

The works were selected with a mind (and most certainly an eye) to unravel a rather complex story, which is the gradual evolution of a peculiarly English sensibility vis-a`-vis nature and the landscape.

But there are subplots as well. Portraiture is touched upon, as are pictures of everyday life and, of course, the visionary romantic William Blake is represented in force thanks to collector Lessing Rosenwald, whose seminal gift to the prints and drawings department included an ample assortment of Blake at his idiosyncratic best. Just enough academic, allegorical works are present to remind us that such notions never quite "took" in Protestant, insular England -- in this respect the English Channel was effectively as wide as the Atlantic.

To say that there are no "names" is not wholly fair. Besides Blake, Gainsborough is here, and Constable, and Turner. But, far from dominating the tale, they fit into it; one is as likely to leave these galleries with strong impressions of works by little-known artists -- Alexander Cozens, Marcellus Laroon, Thomas Girtin, Julius Caesar Ibbetson or David Cox -- as of those by acknowledged greats.

In fact, if I were forced to pick a best-in-show I unhesitatingly would choose Girtin's "Village Along a River Estuary in Devon" over Constable's aptly titled "A Great Elm Tree" (the tree is great, and so is the drawing). Girtin died young -- at age 27, in 1802 -- but in just a few years before his death, in watercolors such as this one, he brought English landscape painting to maturity.

"Devon" is a quiet work, but stunning in technique and stirring in effect. It is neither an imaginary scene nor an academic concoction such as Gainsborough's 1780 wash drawing, "Wooded Upland Landscape With a Bridge" -- a cluster of trees plucked from one location and a row of hills from another place (more likely than not, a place inside the artist's head).

And, although it records a specific place, Girtin's work is not simply a precise, topographical record. There was a flurry of topographical art in England in the later stages of the 18th century, represented here by Paul Sandby's important, though curious, 1773 watercolor "The Tide Rising at Briton Ferry." Sandby took the trouble to write a description of the exact conditions under which he made the picture -- "I was so attentive in making this drawing Correct, as not to perceive the Tyde approaching ..." -- but he actually painted the image as a memory, with the artist and his two companions comically running to escape the fast-rising tide.

Girtin's "Devon," by contrast, is a seamless whole. In the flickering brushwork with which he delineates the clustered houses, in the crystalline reflections upon a narrow pond of water or in the totally unostentatious composition, one sees and feels the direct observation of a particular place at a particular time. The scene is entirely ordinary; it stands for nothing but itself. And yet it is an everyday experience heightened by artistic concentration. The only English landscape of comparable quality in this building is Constable's superb 1816 oil "Wivenhoe Park, Essex," not in this show but, rather, on view upstairs with the other English paintings.

Curiously enough it was Turner, not Constable, who was Girtin's youthful friend and colleague. Together they took long sketching walks in the countryside (a quintessentially English stimulus to art that perseveres in the late 20th-century work of Hamish Fulton and Richard Long). According to Robison, the elder Turner paid his youthful friend a graceful compliment by saying, "If Tom Girtin had lived I'd be out of work." Even so, one is hard put to see much of Girtin in Turner's intensely imaginative work, such as the nearly abstract 1827 watercolor here, "A Yorkshire River." Artistically, Constable was Girtin's true heir.

There was no English landscape school, in fact no English visual art to speak of, in the first half of the 17th century, but the continental artists major and minor who worked there were, if we believe the evidence here (and why not?), captivated by the landscape. Anthony van Dyck, the great Flamand who became "Principalle Paynter in ordinary to their Majesties at St. James's," makes a splendid beginning to the story with his sparkling, fluid pen-and-ink sketch of "The Edge of a Wood" from the 1630s. Wenceslaus Hollar, an expatriate Bohemian printmaker, anticipated the native topographical school by about a century; he's represented here by a meticulous rendering of "Cape Spartell From the West," made in the late 1660s from the deck of an English ship on a survey expedition to northern Africa.

Among the native, 18th-century artists who made landscape a specialty, Alexander Cozens and his son, John Robert, are seen here to advantage. Cozens pe`re was a pedagogue who advocated, among other methods, a system of spontaneous "blots" to form landscape compositions. His "Mountain Landscape with a Hollow" (c. 1770), even more than his son's later "Monte Circeo at Sunset," exemplifies the moody 18th-century attitude toward nature. The human presence, in the form of a few barely discernible buildings, is overwhelmed by the threatening power of the mountains, an effect theorists of the time referred to as the "Sublime." It's a monochromatic drawing that persuades, even today.

After Girtin and Constable, of course, attitudes changed dramatically. The island kingdom produced legions of superb watercolorists whose subject was the much loved English countryside. Several, including Cox, Peter De Wint, James Bulwer and John Linnell, are shown here. As often as not these artists would append little handwritten notes to make sure we would know precisely what we are looking at. Bulwer, for instance, gives both year and date for his "Landscape With Cattle" -- Aug. 17, 1830 -- and Linnell can't help pointing out parenthetically that behind his "Sailboats on Southampton River" (1819) lies the "Isle of Wight in {the} Distance."

It's hardly surprising that a nation so obsessed with nature and its own landscape, whether as a subject of awe or loving familiarity, would also produce artists whose main intention was to record the humans who owned the land and lived on it. Hence a scattering of people enliven this show -- portrait drawings more memorable in their way than many of the fully finished paintings that form so heavy a quotient of the gallery's permanent collection, on view upstairs, and "genre" groups.

Among the latter there is no Hogarth drawing, but there's a "Garden Party at a Country House" (1771) rendered in detail so vivid by Marcellus Laroon that one practically feels invited. Thomas Rowlandson, the realist, satirist and maker of stupendously comic, erotic watercolors, here contributes two lively scenes of country life (a market day and a funeral procession) and a sketch of "A Young English Beauty" -- a title that fits the subject.

Ibbetson, seemingly a one-man Currier & Ives, is an unknown who surfaces here with a luminous version of his specialty -- ice-skating scenes. Robison was attracted to this little illustration not only for its quality, but also for its source -- our own Gilbert Stuart, whose 1782 oil painting "The Skater" caused a great stir when exhibited in London shortly after it was done. "The Skater," not incidentally, is one of the jewels in the National Gallery's collection of American art.

It is minor discoveries such as Ibbetson as well as major ones such as Girtin that make this show such a pleasure. Robison obviously had fun assembling this collection, a representative sampling of a quality extremely rare in this country. He found one drawing (the Laroon) mislabeled in a Paris gallery and bought it for the price of its frame; he traced another (the Constable) to a collector in Australia; he purchased a few at auction; and in the end, unsurprisingly, he could rely on the help and enthusiasm of retired gallery president Paul Mellon, than whom no collector has been more supportive of English art.

This modest, exemplary exhibition will lighten up an hour or two of anybody's time this winter. The show will remain on view through March 13. Unfortunately, there's no catalogue.