Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review: Cotman in Normandy - at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Yesterday I went to see Cotman in Normandy - the new exhibition of watercolour paintings, drawings and etchings by John Sell Cotman at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  The exhibition opens to the public today and continues until mid-January.

Cotman in Normandy - the coloured watercolour paintings done in the studio on his return
In summary, it an exhibition which is going to be of interest to those who like Early English watercolours and drawings.  However it has to be said that the bulk of the exhibition - apart from the first and last rooms are mainly drawings and etchings and mainly monochromatic paintings.  Those coming hoping to see a lot of watercolour paintings will be disappointed - however the ones you do see are good - although not all are by Cotman!

Who is John Cotman?

I sometimes forget that not everybody shares my enthusiasm for English Watercolour Painters around 1800!  So here's a bit about Cotman

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) was a leading member of the Norwich school of Artists - which was the first provincial art movement in the UK.  (Note:  I learned that the Museum in Norwich has a huge bequest of Cotman works - with the stipulation that they should never ever be loaned out.  So if you want to see good early works by Cotman you need to pay a visit to Norwich Museum.  Not that one can tell this by looking at their website - the most I could find was a booklist for the Norwich School of Painters!).

Prior to that he had been born in Norwich and educated in painting in London where he was very much influenced by Thomas Girtin and joined a sketching club founded by Girtin.

He's mainly known as a landscape painter and etcher plus he produced illustrations for books.  At the time of the paintings produced for this exhibition he was being paid some £200pa to be a painting tutor to the wife and children of a gentleman known as Dawson Turner.

Other artists in the exhibition

Besides Cotman, there are also a few examples of drawings and paintings of Normandy which were being executed by other watercolour artists at the same time - including:
  • JMW Turner - the exhibition includes three very nice small watercolour sketches - including one which was a direct comparison with a painting by Cotman  
  • Richard Parkes Bonington (who died age 26) - whose drawings I loved and 
  • a couple of artists I'd never heard of:
Cotman in Normandy

It's an interesting exhibition and focuses on one particular stage in Cotman's life when he had two ambitions:
  • to resolve some questions about the origins of English architecture - and its relationship with French Norman architecture.  Apparently architecture was described as going from Anglo Saxon to Early English without any reference to the Norman influence!  Cotman had painted most of the churches in Norfolk - and he had a theory!
  • to make money (what's new!) by creating portfolios of etchings from a series of drawings of buildings in Normandy.
The context for both of these aims is the fact the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) were over and the English could again travel in France.  However  I gather that the British public did not find a great need for drawings of buildings in Normandy and hence in the end he didn't achieve the favour or fortune that he'd hoped for.

New Bridge, Durham 1806-7 by John Sell Cotman
Watercolour on paper
Private Collection

Exhibition Rooms

The exhibition starts with drawings, etchings and watercolours of England by Cotman from around the time the Norwich School of Artists was founded in 1803 - within the context of the "golden age of English watercolour painting"

(See The 
 Dr. Patricia

If I'm honest these are the ones I prefer.  I'm a big fan of Cotman's early paintings in the first decade of the nineteenth century.

The New Bridge, Durham (left) is a junior relation of the very famous Greta Bridge which is in the British Museum

The hub of the exhibition revolves around three journeys that Cotman made to Normandy in 1817, 1818 and 1820.  The artwork he produced is referred to as "later work" to distinguish it from some of the very popular earlier work.

This is a YouTube video of the Curator explaining the exhibition

I found the curator and the catalogue to be rather heavy on the history and the story and somewhat lightweight on the painting and technical aspects of producing the works.  It's very often the case these days that exhibitions of paintings focus in part on the processes adopted by an artist - but here we have no sketchbooks and no tools of the trade of the time which help explain how his work was produced.

It would be good if galleries could balance out art historians with the valuable perspective of practitioners who can talk and write rather more know about how works were produced and their resonance as works of art as opposed to records of places.   As it is, it's rather as if the exhibition is designed to appeal rather more to antiquarians than artists or art lovers!

So for example, I went through the whole introduction at the preview by the Curator yesterday without once realising that not one single drawing or painting in the exhibition was produced by Cotman 'on site' while working 'plein air'.  I also only found that out when I asked where his sketchbooks were.  Apparently there are no sketchbooks or any original drawings.  All the works in existence are studio works made from the original drawings.  Which explains why a lot of his works appear to have been made while he was suspended in the air!

Given the contrast with the practice of other artists working at the same time I'd have thought rather more weight could have been made of this and the processes adopted by Cotman for making art.

For example, one of the summaries on the wall references  a Graphic Telescope - which was used to project an image from which the outline could be drawn on to a piece of paper - but that's it.  I had  no picture or further explanation of what it looks like or what it did.  However if we go to the V&A we can see a whole article about Drawing techniques using the camera lucida & Varley graphic telescope

To my mind the use of such a tool explains why Cotman's 'style' for his later works looks even flatter than his earlier works where more use was made of tonal values and gradated washes.

In the later works he gets more involved with the detail  and the a heavy punch of a 3D effect rather than the big shapes and judicious and subtle use of tonal values to get recession which is seen in the earlier works.  There's also a certain sense of colouring between the lines in these later works.  That said it's one way of doing watercolour!

In essence for me, this exhibition confirms John Sell Cotman's strengths as being a graphic rather than a romantic artist - such as Bonington.  The contrast between their drawing styles  which is evident in the exhibition is very marked.  Maybe his aim of producing a set of etchings led him to be much more graphic - it's hard to say.

Cotman is good at composition and the graphic representation of a place.  This exhibition suggests that in his later works he's rather less interested in the colouration and the tonal washes with careful colouration which are more evident his earlier work.

John Sell Cotman, Alencon, 1823, watercolour, 432 x 584 mm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Alencon (1823) by John Sell Cotman
watercolour, 432 x 584 mm, 
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

However he does produce an excellent monochromatic watercolour drawing - and there are some excellent paintings - just not a lot!

[Note:  If you want to see more images from the exhibition please bookmark this post as I'll be back to add in some more images from the exhibition later - I've got to go to an Awards Dinner!]

...and the rest


There's a catalogue if you can't get to the exhibition - but although the quality of its reproductions are good, those interested need to realise it's heavy on the history rather than the art.  The catalogue and various other products are available from the excellent gallery shop.


There are some related events


I love the look of the exhibition - the sepia ink and monochomatic works on old paper works look particularly good on the Farrow and Ball Dix Blue walls.

However I do think the labelling is going to present some people with problems if they have less than very good eyesight.  The issue is essentially the lack of contrast between the white text and the mid blue label.

I suggest Dulwich PG might want to reflect on the right balance between accessibility and aesthetics for future exhibitions.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a fascinating review. You might be interested to know that there is a lovely archive of work by Cotman in the Western Prints and Drawings Room at the Ashmolean - the watercolours are kept in boxes and some of the colours are glorious.

    One other point: Cotman was rather neglected after his death but in 1922 the Tate held a major retrospective. One critic commented:

    ‘There is no English landscape painter – perhaps no English painter at all except Hogarth – so interesting to the modern artist. Cotman alone of English painters of his time seems to have designed consciously and to have anticipated, and surpassed, many modern efforts at design… Always in his finest works we have the sense of the chaos of reality being ordered into music, of a firm but gentle compelling power which, as it were, makes Nature behave herself…’


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