'Cotman in Normandy'
Dulwich Picture Gallery London
10 October 2012-13 January 2013
John Sell Cotman and his wife Ann's first child was born in February 1810. Later that year, Cotman, who had until that time been working principally in watercolour, turned his attention to etching, believing perhaps that this would enhance his income. 'Had Cotman died at this moment [aged 28], at the age when Girtin and Bonington died, his reputation would stand, perhaps, higher than it does, since his oeuvre would have been all of a piece, poetical in conception, and--after he had mastered his technique--superb in execution,' wrote Sydney Kitson (Life of John Sell Cotman, London 1937, p133). But for the next ten years or so, Cotman, encouraged by his patron Dawson Turner, concentrated his efforts on illustration, which included a substantial body of etchings of medieval architecture.
Cotman in Normandy, curated by Timothy Wilcox at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, provides an insight into the period during and surrounding Cotman's three visits to Normandy in 1817, 1818 and 1820 and the realisation of a project, proposed by Dawson Turner, to publish a book on the Antiquities of Normandy. It also provides an opportunity to examine the impact that Cotman's dedication to etching the complexities of Norman and gothic architecture had on the fluent pattern making of his earlier work and a chance to reevaluate Kitson's view.
The carefully selected group of exhibited works has been tailored to fit into the half dozen small rooms which comprise the exhibition space at the Gallery In the first room we are reminded of Cotman's watercolour drawings of the first decade of the 19th century. The pivotal point of the exhibition is Cotman's work on the romanesque and gothic buildings of Normandy and, in anticipation of this, we find his detailed pencil drawing of Howden Church, his 1804 watercolour of Fountains Abbey, the 1806 Durham Cathedral, with the mass of the Early English and Perpendicular style towers emerging majestically through the flat washes that Cotman used so effectively during this period. The 1811-13 Castle Rising church, Norfolk allows comparison to be made between Cotman's preparatory drawing of the interlaced Norman arcading and chevron decoration, and the subsequent etching.
These, with a dozen or more examples of his early work, set the scene for the later work but such is the power of Cotman's early watercolours that they bring to mind many of his other...