John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) is a key figure in the great tradition of English watercolour painting. A prominent member of the Norwich School (he was born in the city), he was a landscape painter of genius, who transcended mere topographical record by making paintings of superb abstract design which also evoke the particularity of place. He could suggest space and light and weather with the lightest and broadest of touches, in images that look curiously modern, if not timeless. He earned a living by teaching and travelling, making saleable studies of antiquities, many of which were reproduced as etchings. Between 1810 and 1821 he focused on the architecture of Norfolk and Normandy, and it is from this work that the exhibition is drawn.
Comprising some 80 watercolours, drawings and prints by Cotman, and 20 by other hands, this show holds the walls nicely in Dulwich’s temporary exhibition space. The first room offers a compressed introduction to the artist and his range of expression. Since some of the best works of the show are in this room, it’s a good idea to start here and end here: come back for another look. There’s a large and magnificent watercolour of Fountains Abbey, for example, that shows how extraordinarily well Cotman could paint in watercolour. Next to it is the ghostly ruined arch of Howden Church in Yorkshire, which demonstrates how sensitively he could draw. For control and evocation of mood we have ‘Brecknock’, a darker work with distant passages of light, and ‘Croyland Abbey’. ‘Durham Cathedral’ is a beauty, but ‘New Bridge, Durham’ is one of the great watercolour landscapes, which amply demonstrates Cotman’s skills as an abstract picture designer. There are too many fine things here to mention all by name, but I must single out a pair of odd demotic buildings, the marvellous ‘Ruined House’ and next to it, ‘On the Walls, Yarmouth’. A knockout first room.
In the second room there’s a beautiful small Turner watercolour, ‘Dieppe from the East’, which rather distracts the eye. Is it fair to hang Turner in a Cotman show? Well, at least it isn’t a major painting and one does get the chance to compare and contrast, but Turner’s art is of a different order and sensibility. He is a great Romantic, while Cotman’s temperament is more classically inclined. Cotman’s painting ‘Dieppe from the Heights’ looks almost pedestrian by comparison, but not when you begin to examine the subtlety of the broken colour in the foreground. Of the more obviously descriptive scenes, ‘Mont St Michel’ is an impressive example, but the best things here are the pair of austere brown-wash abstractions of the crypt of St Gervais in Rouen.
I’m not that interested in 19th-century drawings of cathedral façades, so the occasional interpolation of a Turner or Bonington watercolour of Rouen is very welcome. But generally the comparative pictures by Charles Wild or John Coney (the latter’s ink drawings quite charming but with none of Cotman’s breadth of vision) left me cold. These felt like padding, which was a pity, because the best work here needs no support. I particularly enjoyed the brown-wash drawings of ‘The Falls of Selune’ and ‘Castle at Mortain’, and the pale limpidities of the Church of Pavilly. In the last room are watercolours of the grand Normandy rock formations at Domfront. Their lovely complex linearity and boldly fissured patterns made me think of Edward Bawden’s 20th-century landscapes, returning us once again to an awareness of Cotman’s disconcerting
The Pre-Raphaelites continue to enjoy a peak of popularity, and the Tate’s exhibition was buzzing with excited and satisfied spectators when I visited. Art lovers tend to come to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood early, quite often as teenagers, subsequently regarding their erstwhile enthusiasm as the expression of an immature taste. (I’ve known people do the same with van Gogh.) Well, I can only hope they have the sense to take another look. Personally, every time I look at the PRB I find something new. Even the old warhorses, the great public favourites such as ‘The Scapegoat’, ‘Ophelia’ or ‘The Blind Girl’, have unexpected resonances to offer. A shame the Tate obviously feels the need to justify staging yet another PRB show, and so are here glorifying the Brotherhood as an avant-garde movement. This is rather difficult to demonstrate if you don’t also show what the lads were reacting against. Why can’t the Tate simply admit to putting on a popular blockbuster to fill the coffers?
There is, after all, nothing wrong with looking at pictures for pleasure, without having to consider some tedious curatorial argument. And there’s plenty to look at in the PRB show, from the wall of portrait and self-portrait drawings in the first room, along with a bizarre German painting by Overbeck of the painter Franz Pforr (looking remarkably like a maiden aunt), to the last room where Burne-Jones comes into his own with the magnificent ‘Rock of Doom’ and other paintings.
Along the way are lurid treasures aplenty by Holman Hunt, Millais and Rossetti, a wall of works on paper including the awkward but honest paintings of Lizzie Siddal, better known as muse and model, and then Ford Madox Brown’s fabulously detailed view over London from Hampstead. I’d forgotten how dark this painting is (likewise ‘The Stonebreaker’ by Henry Wallis), or how radical Brown’s painting ‘The Pretty Baa-Lambs’, with its almost savage colours and deliberate crudities. Some of the best things are by lesser-known artists: a lovely painting of spring by Daniel Alexander Williamson, ‘The Artist’s Garden’ by Rosa Brett (elder sister of John), and ‘May, in the Regent’s Park’ by Charles Allston Collins. Always try to check the unfamiliar as well as glorying in the renowned.
Meanwhile, I don’t want to close without mentioning an exhibition at the Fine Art Society (148 New Bond Street, W1, until 12 January), entitled Carving in Britain from 1910 to Now. This large show extends over the three floors of the gallery and includes magnificent things in both wood and stone. It’s very good to see a group of works by the underrated John Skeaping (1901–80), the finest of which must be the burnt cedar Crucifix, made in response to his son’s tragic death. The equally underrated Leon Underwood (1890–1975) is represented by such interesting works as the radical ‘Nucleus’ (c.1923) in Carrara marble. There’s a fabulous large carving in willow by Gertrude Hermes (1901–83) and a couple of excellent pieces by F.E. McWilliam (1909–92), especially the 1936 ‘Hollow Figure’ in beech; also impressive things by Eric Kennington, Henry Moore, Maurice Lambert, Eric Gill, Willi Soukop and Sven Berlin. A fascinating high-quality collection to browse, but inevitably galleries will have different opening hours over the festivities, so please check before turning up.