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Turner and his Contemporaries celebrate Abbot Hall Art Gallery's fiftieth anniversary
JMW Turner, The Sarner See, Evening c.1842. © The Hickman Bacon Collection.

CUMBRIA.- As part of its Fiftieth Anniversary, Abbot Hall Art Gallery will be exhibiting a selection of outstanding works from the magnificent collection assembled by one man, Sir Hickman Bacon (1855-1945), almost 100 years ago. It is probably the most important private holding of British eighteenth and nineteenth century watercolours in the world, and now, thanks to the generosity of the present owners, more than 40 of these masterpieces (including eighteen Turners) will be on show in Cumbria, an area that played a crucial role in the development of watercolour as the medium of choice for the itinerant artist in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century.

At the heart of the show will be the towering figure of JMW Turner (1775-1851) who, pushed to ever greater heights through his association with his contemporary, Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), transformed the medium and raised the humble watercolour to a technical and aesthetic level previously unimaginable. The Hickman Bacon collection is particularly strong in late Turner watercolours – dazzling displays of virtuosity with shimmering strokes of colour, near abstract in their luminosity – which are now highly prized but were too unpolished at the time for all but the most discerning of collectors. Alongside these rapidly executed studies will be more finished ‘exhibition’ pieces by Turner from Abbot Hall’s own collection, giving a career overview of his sustained brilliance.

Book ending the exhibition will be atmospheric and exquisitely modulated works by other exceptional innovators, such as John Robert Cozens (1752-1797) and John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), many of whom were neglected at the time that the astute Sir Hickman Bacon acquired their watercolours but who are now recognised as true masters of the art. Both Turner and Girtin, along with other celebrated artists, including Cotman, received a solid grounding in the fundamentals of watercolour technique through copying works by the masters of their day at the informal ‘academy’ of Dr Thomas Monro, a physician, talented amateur artist and collector with a brilliant eye. Of all the pictures that Turner and Girtin studied, none were more inspirational than the wonderfully evocative landscapes of John Robert Cozens. The first gallery of the exhibition at Abbot Hall will be dominated by this artist, who, through his subtle washes of colour and tonal variation, transformed the watercolour from what was previously perceived as predominately a coloured-in drawing to a far more painterly means of expression in its own right. Hanging in close proximity to the works of Cozens will be watercolours by Thomas Girtin whose immense technical prowess proved profoundly influential despite his career being cut short at the age of only 27.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the founding of dedicated societies further elevated the watercolour to a level where it was competing with oil painting in terms of its pioneering spirit and prestige. No artist better epitomises this sense of adventure than John Sell Cotman, whose daring compositions and bold swathes of colour look fresh and decidedly modern even today. The exhibition will feature nine exceptional works by Cotman from the Hickman Bacon collection that demonstrate the true breadth of his abilities, along with watercolours by other major talents of the age - David Cox (1783-1859), Peter de Wint (1784-1849), Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-1828), William James Müller (1812-1845) and John Frederick Lewis (1805-1876).

Abbot Hall itself possesses a fine collection of watercolours, centred around the picturesque tour of the Lake District undertaken by artists, professional and amateur alike, from the late eighteenth century onwards. The Hickman Bacon collection features many of the same names that appear in Abbot Hall’s watercolour holdings but shows the artists in a different light, widening their travels to explore not just the pastoral countryside throughout rural England, but also the grand scenery of the Alps, the great European cities, and the exotic landscapes and architecture of Egypt.

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