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Exhibitions A feast of visual delight Andrew Lambirth

Masterpieces of English Watercolours and Drawings from the National Gallery of Scotland Lowell Libson Ltd, 3 Clifford Street, W1, until 14 July

Severance: New Works by Rita Duffy Pyms Gallery, 9 Mount Street, W1, until 15 July

Cecily Brown Gagosian Gallery, 17–19 Davies Street, W1, until 29 July

There are just 26 drawings and watercolours in the magnificent exhibition at Lowell Libson, but they are all of such quality and interest that the show is a feast of connoisseurship and visual delight. Selected by Libson and Christopher Baker from the National Gallery of Scotland, the range of work gives a distinct flavour of the museum’s holdings, from major watercolours made for exhibition to more informal studies. Here are the big names (Turner, Constable, Blake) and the lesser-known (William Callow, John Webber). Most deal with travel or landscape, but there are figure studies and visions, too. The variety within such a small compass is impressive. For pure pleasure, this show is hard to beat.

In the first viewing room is a large and airy landscape by William Turner of Oxford, depicting HalnakerWindmill, near Chichester. This substantial work, with its poignant use of distant blue and its mastery of space, made me want to look more at a painter I had rather discounted; meanwhile the words of Belloc’s famous poem in Ivor Gurney’s setting echoed through my mind. Next to it hangs Girtin’s ‘Stepping Stones on the Wharfe, Yorkshire’, composed of seemingly prim olive greens and dun browns, but as if illuminated from within. In the centre of the adjacent wall hangs a marvellous, almost monochrome watercolour, in limpid blue-greys and yellow-greys. This is ‘The Colosseum from the north’ by John Robert Cozens, like a vision or a pale silhouette, shimmering on the point of dissolving back into light like a mirage. A mountain scene by Cozens is next and then an evocative pencil drawing by Constable of boats overhung with trees and drawn up on the bank of the River Severn at Worcester.

A typically salacious Rowlandson, inscribed ‘Caricature of Dr Johnson’, depicts a gentleman (surely not Dictionary Johnson?) making a grab at a cross-looking but comely chambermaid. Next to that amusing excursion is a splendid Romney brown ink study

A fine balance: ‘A Pool on the River Greta near Rokeby’ by John Sell Cotman for ‘Elizabeth Warren as Hebe’, all brilliantly gathered masses, in which the large areas of ink carry as much emotional weight as the more descriptive lines. Blake’s ‘God writing upon the Tables of the Covenant’ flows upward in imperious aspiring tongues of energy, like flame. Two Gainsborough drawings follow: a rather come-hither black chalk study of a girl out walking, for which it appears the artist’s wife posed; and a convincingly solid, accomplished portrait of a prosperous burgher, perhaps a Dutch sea captain.

One of the several surprises of the show is a fabulous four-sheet exhibition watercolour of Chudleigh in Devon by JohnWhite Abbott. As I first looked at it, I was reminded of Francis Towne (who taught him), for the pen drawing betrays his influence, but the whole has something very much of its own mood and temper. It seems slightly more claustrophobic than Towne, the space more compressed and intriguingly collapsed, but a first-rate painting by this artist. Nearby is a bracingly wild drawing by Richard Dadd, called ‘Dancing jester with imps’. But are the imps tormenting him or collaborating with him? The jester brandishes a flute and the imps are playing other instruments (violins, kettle drum), so this might in fact be a mad orchestra.

In the second room we find ourselves further afield with foreign scenes by J.F. Lewis and John Webber (note the tribal carvings inside a house in Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island), and an enchanting watercolour over pencil of Venice by William Callow. In this room are three Turners: two watercolour vignettes, of which ‘On Camp Hill, near Hastings’ offers a gloriously impassioned sunset sky, together with an unusual gouache of Caley Hall, Yorkshire. This untypically descriptive portrait of the home of John Raistrick, steward of Turner’s great friend and patron Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, is a compelling study full of unexpected details. Note the beehives and roller on the left, and observe the contrast between cultivated foreground garden and the wilderness of Caley Craggs at upper right. I particularly liked the way Turner had painted the creepers on the front of the house.

Next to the Turner is an exemplary Cotman entitled ‘A pool on the River Greta near Rokeby’, the design exquisitely balanced and quartered through flat areas of colour the spectator | 2 July 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk

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