Magazine article The Spectator

English Secret

Magazine article The Spectator

English Secret

Article excerpt


Romantic Landscape: The Norwich School of Painters 1803-1833 (Clore Gallery, Tate Britain, till 17 Sept)

English secret

John Spurling

The old Tate on Millbank has been rechristened Tate Britain and re-hung as a dog's-dinner of British art from all periods, mixed 'n' messed together by theme instead of date or context. The place might be better called IrriTate, softening up the customers for the opening of Tate Modern - InfuriTate? - in May. The only haven of historical sense and sensibility remaining in this curators' playschool is the Clore Gallery, where Turner still rules, flanked on one side by Constable and on the other by a special exhibition of the Norwich School, led by John Crome and John Sell Cotman. Drawn partly from the Tate's own collection but chiefly from the Castle Museum in Norwich - currently being renovated - this is a unique opportunity to see these often underrated painters in a fresh setting, since, under the terms of the Colman family bequests, their works have never been allowed to leave Norwich before.

From the point of view of conserving many of Cotman's finest watercolours this has probably been just as well, but it has also contributed to the fact that for the world at large Cotman's achievement in particular has remained for nearly 200 years an English secret. Even now, in the dispiriting hotel-conference-room environment of the Clore's galleries, gloomily lit and under the camouflage of the `Norwich School', the secret may still not be immediately obvious to the passing visitor.

The truth is that Cotman, the slightly younger contemporary of Constable and Turner, as different from both of them as they are from each other, is their peer. The Cotman specialist Miklos Rajnai goes further, writing in his catalogue for the Arts Council touring exhibition which marked the bicentenary of Cotman's birth in 1982, but did not, of course, include any of the works from Norwich Castle: `If one concentrates entirely on the output of his greatest period, that between 1805 and 1812, he stands out as a supreme artist with more marked individuality than any of his contemporaries, not excluding Turner.'

But although his period began well with early success in London, although he was hardworking, ambitious, enthusiastic, admired as an artist and personally liked by a circle of friends and collectors - and incidentally, it seems, a good and kind husband of five - Cotman was depressive and easily discouraged. After a mysterious rebuff from the Old Watercolour Society in London, he retreated to his home town of Norwich and became, for all most of his world knew, a drawing-master, a topographical printmaker, a leading member of the Norwich Society of Artists, but essentially a provincial artist. …

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