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First exhibition devoted to John Sell Cotman's significant Normandy works opens at Dulwich Picture Gallery
John Sell Cotman, Saint George de Bocherville, 1831, Graphite and watercolour on paper, 27.3 x 39.8 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. John Scott Bequest, 1864.

LONDON.- Dulwich Picture Gallery announced Cotman in Normandy,10 October – 13 January. The exhibition takes a fresh look at the central chapter of the career of John Sell Cotman (1782–1842), revered as the quintessential English watercolourist. Displaying 80 drawings, watercolours and prints by Cotman, along with 20 studies by other artists, including J. M. W. Turner, the exhibition will place Cotman’s visits to Normandy within the broader context of his lifelong engagement with buildings, particularly the architecture of the Middle Ages. His exploration of the undeniable French influence on some of Britain’s finest architecture provided a controversial commentary on Anglo-French cultural exchange in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.

John Sell Cotman, long considered one of the greatest exponents in the field of watercolour, made three visits to Normandy, in 1817, 1818 and 1820. In 1822, he published two monumental folio volumes entitled Architectural Antiquities of Normandy. This major publication was the climax of over a decade during which print-making as a medium and architecture as a subject had been the primary focus of Cotman’s art. This period, and his work on Normandy in particular, is often presented as a distraction from his lyrical watercolours but this exhibition will seek to establish the significance of this period in Cotman’s development as an artist.

Timothy Wilcox, curator of the exhibition, said: “why this show? Why Dulwich? How long has it been in process? Are there any surprises in store?”

The numerous works by Cotman on display will allow comparison of his Normandy work against the background of his earlier architectural work and will be seen in the company of a further 20 studies by other artists, including J.M.W. Turner, Samuel Prout and Henry Edridge, who also visited Normandy. However, the political context of this corps of British artists making studies of Normandy – in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars – renders their work revolutionary. At a time when British military was supreme, these artists were effectively demonstrating that culturally, Britain owed a great deal to France. If Cotman’s publishing project failed, and his remarkable work went underappreciated, it is perhaps not entirely surprising; few of his countrymen were prepared to hear such a radical message.

Lenders include the British Museum, The Victoria & Albert Museum, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Harrow School, Yale Center For British Art (USA), Smith Collect Museum of Art (USA), National Galleries of Scotland and private collections. The exhibition will be structured around Cotman’s drawings of architecture, 1800-1817, his tours of Normandy and their aftermath, and other visitors to Normandy at that time.

Cotman in Normandy will shed new light on both an artist who is often misunderstood and a fascinating moment in the relationship between Britain and France.

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