At home with the Norwich masters

ANGI KENNEDY Six new exhibitions to celebrate the bicentenary of the Norwich School of Artists will be on show at Norwich Castle.

ANGI KENNEDY

It was a very different setting but only a short step away, where the Norwich School of Artists' first exhibition was held 200 years ago.

The old house of Sir Benjamin Wrench stood where the Jarrold store is today, and it was here that 18 members of the newly-formed Norwich Society of Artists exhibited more than 200 oils and watercolours.

The work of some of these same artists will be on display in the city once more in a comprehensive series of exhibitions to celebrate the bicentenary of this historic event.

This time the venue will be the prestigious galleries of Norwich Castle. Thousands of visitors are expected to come to view this showcase of the work of this group of outstanding artists who are renowned for their paintings of the Norfolk landscape.

The castle is hosting six new exhibitions under the title of Landscape 200, which will be presented in partnership with the East Anglia Art Foundation (EAAF) and sponsored by Norwich-based property and business consultants Brown & Co.

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Nick Lyons, chairman of the EAAF, said: “Never before have so many wonderful English Romantic landscapes been seen together in Norwich.

“This is a unique opportunity to glory in watercolours of the very highest quality and we are proud to be part of this landmark anniversary.”

Highlights of the event include watercolours by John Sell Cotman from the British Museum and 21 paintings by Turner which are on loan from the greatest private collection of British watercolours.

It will be the first time that this collection of Cotmans has been back in Norfolk in more than a century, as Andrew Moore, keeper of art at Norwich Castle, explained.

“This exhibition is called Cotman in the British Museum: The James Reeve Collection, and it really explores the story of Reeve, who was the first curator of the Norfolk and Norwich Museum.

“He was associated with the museum for 70 years and was himself an amateur painter, antiquarian and natural historian.

“Reeve collected the work of all the Norwich School of Artists and had the first collection of John Sell Cotman. He also collected other scraps of archival information about them and their exhibitions, and so, during the Victorian period, he amassed this amazing archive of material on the Norwich School of Painters before they were properly known.”

Reeve was adviser first to Jeremiah James Colman, founder of the mustard company, and then to his son, Russell James Colman.

It was through Reeve's discernment and knowledge that their magnificent collection of watercolours by Cotman was formed. And in 1946, these watercolours were bequeathed to Norwich Castle, together with the rest of the Colman Collection of Norwich School paintings and drawings.

“In 1902, James Reeve sold his personal collection to the British Museum,” said Mr Moore. “He did it to secure a national reputation for these artists to ensure their longevity in terms of excellence and influence.

“And now, the point of this exhibition is that the work is coming back to Norwich for the first time. There will be around 80 pieces exhibited, 20 of which come from the collection here.”

Reeve knew many of the Norwich School artists personally, as they continued their work into the 1880s, long after the deaths of the two most famous masters, John Crome and John Sell Cotman.

It was Crome (1768-1821) who set up the Norwich Society of Artists in 1803 “for the purpose of an Enquiry into the Rise, Progress and present state of Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture, with a view to point out the Best Methods of Study to attain the Greater Perfection in these Arts”.

Mr Moore explained: “Norfolk at the time was almost like an academy of painting.”

This was through a lucky combination of the skills of artists hailing from the area and the influence of the countryside and coastal scenes upon them. Together they led to an original and contemporary style of landscape painting removed from the rural idylls that had been presented by artists like Gainsborough, and more influenced by the Dutch artists who had similar landscapes to inspire them.

The 1805 exhibition of the society was well received by the public. The Norwich School flourished for the next 30 years and the exhibition became an annual event.

But by the time Cotman - who had followed Crome as president of the society - died in 1842, the exhibitions had ceased.

But the influence of the Norwich School artists - who included James Stark, George Vincent, John Bernay Crome, Robert Ladbrooke and Robert Dixon - on landscape painting could not be underestimated.

“The original Norwich Art Society were original and contemporary,” said Mr Moore.

“The received idea of landscape painting was of the idyll and these artists showed that there could be another way of painting landscapes that was more realistic.

“So Crome and the others moved it forward by looking instead at the real environment and local landscape and by following the Dutch 17th century painters with a strong sense of the nature of the landscape.”

There will be plenty of opportunities to see how in the John Sell Cotman and the Norwich School: Landscapes in Watercolour exhibition, which will be taking place in the Colman Watercolour Gallery. This will feature classic watercolours from the castle's nationally important collection.

And in the Bernard Matthews Gallery of the castle there will be The Golden Age of Watercolours: The Hickman Bacon Collection.

This will include 21 stunning paintings by J M W Turner, which will be on show alongside works by some of the finest British watercolorists including Cotman, David Cox, John Robert Cozens, Thomas Girtin, Richard Parkes Bonington and Peter de Wint.

“For anyone who is interested in English watercolour, this really is a watercolour fest,” said Mr Moore.

Sir Hickman Bacon, who lived in Thonock, Lincolnshire and died in 1945, built up what is considered the most important collection of British watercolours in private hands - a near complete survey of the great age of landscape watercolours.

The collection has been made available to the castle by Sir Nicholas and Lady Bacon as part of the celebrations of Landscape 200.

A fourth exhibition has a quite different approach to those celebrations. Face to Face: Portraits of Artists of the Norwich School, in the Colman Gallery, is a display of rarely seen portraits of the artists themselves.

This chance to see the faces behind the paintings includes self portraits as well as those by their contemporaries and their students, as several of the artists earned money as teachers of art, particularly to the ladies of fine houses in the area.

Landscape 200 is not just about celebrating the bicentenary of that first exhibition, but also about looking forward to how the “rare and beautiful” Norfolk of Cotman's time continues to inspire artists today.

To complement the other exhibitions, an Open Art Show has been organised, with artists living and working in Norfolk submitting work for selection by a panel from the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

From the 1200 submitted, more than 100 pieces will be on show and all will be for sale.

And at the end of the year, the winner of the Brown & Co Open Art Show award will have his or her work exhibited in the Cotman Gallery.

Peter Horner, of Brown & Co said: “This is a wonderful opportunity for artists from Norfolk, under the age of 30, to exhibit their pictures at Norwich Castle.

“There is a great tradition of creativity in Norfolk and this is an unusual opportunity to see how local artists are working today.”

So does that hint at a second Norwich School in the future?

Mr Moore said: “I don't think it is the case any more that there is a particular modern Norwich School of Art, because artists are open to so many influences now. It is a global culture.

“People enjoy painting here and are inspired by the environment and where they live, but not necessarily with the eyes of a landscape painter.”

EXHIBITION DETAILS

t Cotman in the British Museum: The James Reeve Collection, Monday March 21 to Sunday June 26.

t The Golden Age of Watercolours: The Hickman Bacon Collection, Monday March 21 to Sunday June 26.

t John Sell Cotman and the Norwich School: Landscapes in Watercolour, Monday March 21 to Sunday March 19, 2006.

t Face to Face: Portraits of Artists of the Norwich School, until Sunday November 27

t Norwich Castle Open Art Show, Saturday April 30 to Sunday June 5.

t Brown & Co Open Art Show Award, Monday December 5 to Sunday, February 5 2006.

t Norwich Castle is open Monday to Friday 10am till 4.30pm, Saturday 10am till 5pm and Sunday 1pm till 5pm. During Easter, school half-term and summer holidays, opening hours are Monday to Saturday 10am to 5.30pm and Sunday 1pm to 5pm. Tickets are £3.45 for adults, £2.95 concessions and £2.60 for young people for the art and exhibitions zones, or £5.95 for adults, £4.95 concessions and £4.45 young people for all museum zones.

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