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Major solo show in Britain to celebrate Emily Carr’s European roots

Detail of Emily Carr’s Sky.

Emily Carr's relationship with England was a fraught one. The famous Canadian painter lived there for almost five years, first travelling to London's Westminster School of Arts from her Victoria home in 1899. While Carr, 28 at that time, came to love London for its cultural riches, its artistic resources and its cosmopolitanism, the city's sooty climate exacerbated her already fragile health. Retreats to rural rest homes and sanatoriums marked her life there and in late 1905, she returned to Canada, determined to be an artist-teacher in Vancouver.

Now, almost 115 years after first setting foot on British soil, Emily Carr is returning to Britain, and returning, it's hoped, in triumph. Not Carr herself, of course – she died in 1945 – but an estimated 100 oil paintings, watercolours and heretofore unexhibited sketchbook drawings by the artist for what's being billed as the first major solo British show of her oeuvre. Culled from major Canadian public and private collections, the exhibition opens Nov. 1, 2014, for a nearly four-month run at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London, according to an announcement from Dulwich Wednesday morning.

If the name of the gallery (pronounced Dull-itch) seems familiar to Canadians, it's likely less for it being England's first purpose-built public gallery, opened in 1817, than because just more than two years ago its halls hosted the largest-ever British survey of works by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. That exhibition, 123 paintings and sketches, drew more than 41,000 visitors over 12 weeks – the second most successful single show in Dulwich's illustrious history – and generated near unanimous favourable critical comment.

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The Carr exhibition, a collaboration with Dulwich and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (which intends to mount its own iteration later in 2015), is largely the brainchild of Dulwich director Ian Dejardin, who also curated the Thomson/Group of Seven show. This time, though, he has a co-curator, Vancouver-born Sarah Milroy, former editor/publisher of Canadian Art magazine and a Globe and Mail contributor with a long-standing interest in Carr, particularly as a "Canadian artist with strong European roots."

"The idea for having this show in Britain [is] because Tom Thomson and the Group attracted so much attention, this will attract the same kind of attention," Dejardin said in a recent interview. "I see it as a kind of opening door, which is one of those things that Dulwich does very well: We will do a show and it will be noticed and the artist at hand will be picked up on and with any luck you'll see over time an outcrop of Emily Carr shows across Europe as a result."

Dejardin is famous, in Canadian art circles at least, for his first encounter with the Group of Seven. It occurred in 1986 while he was a curatorial assistant at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Flipping through a pile of books, he came across a volume on the Group of Seven, artists he'd heretofore never heard of. After being "completely blown away" by what he saw, he silently vowed that if he ever got into a position of power and influence at a British arts institution, he'd mount an exhibition of "this stuff."

The encounter with Carr wasn't quite as epiphanic: he only discovered her in early 2011, "during the process of looking into Tom Thomson and the Group for the Dulwich show." Nevertheless, he was impressed by what he saw and when it came time for him to draw up a list of potential future Canadian-themed shows for the Canadian Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Toronto-based organization that helped him access Thomson/Group art, "she was certainly on it." Later, "a couple of moments" pushed Carr to the fore: one was the number of Canadians and Canadian expatriates attending the Dulwich Thomson/Group who insisted, "Oh, you must do Emily Carr;" the other occurred during a seminar Dejardin hosted in February, 2012, during the show's appearance at the National Museum of Art in Oslo.

"A very irate little man – he was Norwegian – stood up and demanded to know why Carr wasn't in the show … and he actually sort of stormed out" in response to what he felt was an inadequate answer. "It made me realize how strongly people felt about her," Dejardin said.

A salient aspect of the Carr show will be its presentation of aboriginal artifacts, lent mostly by British collectors. The hope here, according to Milroy, "is to make clear to visiting British audiences the sophistication and beauty of the aboriginal cultures of the northwest coast, and the integrity of their cosmology." The exhibition's also about the differences between "a landscape experienced by a white woman of British colonial background and an indigenous experience of place, rooted through kinship to the natural world."

The show's full title, Painting Canada 2: Emily Carr and the Indigenous Art of the Northwest Coast, implies that a series is under way at Dulwich. That's an entirely correct presumption, said Dejardin, who, after naming some of his other favourite Canadian artists – David Milne, J.W. Morrice, Maurice Cullen, Painters Eleven – refrained from tipping his hand as to what Painting Canada 3 might be about.

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