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’.