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Cotman in Normandy
Dulwich Picture Gallery , London
With A Year In Provence, the Channel Tunnel and even a British Tour De France winner, our nearest continental neighbour may sometimes feel more familiar than parts of our home country. That was far from the case in the early 18th century when France was Britain’s mortal enemy and its people were portrayed most widely in Hogarth’s satirical works.

That began to change after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, and one of its most diligent visitors was the watercolourist John Sell Cotman, which is how Dulwich Picture Gallery draws us into one of the most unusual careers in British painting. Nowadays something of a footnote in art history, Cotman apparently surpassed Turner in popularity for much of the last century. It is easy to see why he fell out of the fashion, for while both artists used watercolour, one was obsessed with capturing the sublime and the other was recording architectural history with some exactitude, with most attention paid to the venerable Gothic style.

Specifically, Cotman sought to document the natural and man-made sights of Normandy in one massive tome, a quixotic errand that provides this exhibition with an uncommon sense of jeopardy. Will he completely alienate his benefactor’s family before he completes his tour? Will there be enough demand for A Picturesque Tour Of Normandy? In the end, that proves something of a McGuffin as Cotman’s journeys provide rich enough content.

While concentrating on the region’s architecture, Cotman is no mere draughtsman. Even with the austere simplicity of the Norman fortresses and churches, he has a knack of finding off-centre viewpoints that provide dynamism for his muddiest graphite and brown-wash sketches. Elsewhere, his magpie eye brings to life both Rouen street scenes and dramatic Orne landscapes. His use of colour lacks Turner’s dazzling verve, as a couple of the master’s own hurried cartoons alongside prove; though Cotman certainly has is moments when shards of light illuminate the chapel at Fécamp Abbey or the sun hits Mont St Michel. As sales of his book proved, Cotman needed a better champion to match his ambition – and in Dulwich he has found one.

Cotman In Normandy runs until January 13 2013.

Chris Mugan