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Cotman in Normandy

Pat Harvey

Dulwich Picture Gallery
Until 13 January

Cotman.jpg You may not have heard of John Sell Cotman, but to watercolourists he was one of a clutch of English 18th-century artists whose wizardry transformed watercolour from its humble origins - a topographical tool for enhancing maps and engravings - into the phantasmagoria now known as the Golden Age of watercolour.

Despite his eminence, Cotman died in obscurity, receiving no obituary. Not until the turn of the 20th century, when the British Museum acquired a large collection of his paintings and drawings, was he accorded his place in art history, acclaimed by critics and emulated by artists.

When John Cotman came to prominence the Napoleonic wars had put the Grand Tour on hold, forcing British artists to confine themselves to their own country. Born to a Norwich barber, Cotman was determined from the first to be an artist and in 1799, after a Welsh tour, joined Dr Monro's Academy in London, the amateur institution which had nurtured his fellow watercolourists Girtin and Turner. In 1800, still aged only 18, he exhibited at the Royal Academy and was awarded its 'large silver palette'. By a massive stroke of good fortune he was introduced to the Cholmeleys, a wealthy Yorkshire family. Mrs Cholmeley made the young painter her protégé, welcoming him into their home and encouraged him to use it as a base as he travelled the length and breadth of the county in search of suitable subjects - such as its spectacular ruined abbeys (Fountains Abbey, pictured left). For three years, 1803-5, Cotman honed his skills, developing the flat, monumental style of Greta Bridge and pushing 'good, conventional artistry into unforeseen brilliance and originality' to quote his biographer.

But in 1806, he was rejected by the newly formed Society of Painters in Watercolour and retreated, quashed, to Norfolk where he remained for seven years. In 1812 Cotman accepted a position as drawing master to the six daughters of Dawson Turner, a Yarmouth banker.

With the end of the war, a dedicated army of antiquarians, amateur and professional, invaded the continent, anxious to record and restore churches decimated during the Revolution.

Cotman conceived the project of an enormous volume of etchings: Architectural Antiquities of Normandy. Armed with letters of introduction from Turner, he embarked on three wide-ranging tours of the departement in 1817, 1818 and 1820, chronicling churches, castles and cathedrals with a finely-etched line now seen as one of the pinnacles of its craft. On two of these he was accompanied by Charles de Gerville, an emigre who, like many of his compatriots, admired Cotman's skill and introduced him to the round-arched Norman churches and cathedrals whose style he had already admired in Norwich and Durham.

The book was a flop. For ten years Cotman had laid aside his brush, leaving painters like Samuel Prout to capitalise on the insatiable public demand for continental watercolours. But his old passion finally reasserted itself. Upon his return to England, Cotman produced a new series of watercolour paintings based on his experiences in Normandy. Whilst not perhaps possessing the carefree lyricism of his earlier work, such works as Alencon (1828) and St George de Boscherville (1831) rank among the finest in the medium.

Increasingly a prey to depression arising from the chronic struggle to make ends meet, and his perception of himself as never having risen above the status of  provincial artist-cum-drawing-master, Cotman died in his 60th year, 'not through some killing disease but lack of a desire to go on living'.

According to Timothy Wilcox, the exhibition's curator, little or no evidence exists concerning Cotman's religious beliefs. This means we do not know whether he was able to draw any consolation in the perpetual struggle to make ends meet from the Christian idea that what happens to us is in God's hands and success or failure in his eyes is very different to what the world sees. The fact that, posthumously, he occupies such an illustrious niche in art history may be of little consolation to those of us who, as Christians, grapple with the same stuff.

Regarded by many as among the finest ever produced, Cotman's crystalline drawings and etchings of Norman architecture form the heart of this exhibition. It is an important addition to our understanding of his work.

Pat Harvey