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visual arts

Cellphone shot of part of the long lineup to see Group of Seven show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London on Jan. 8, 2012.

An exhibition of 123 paintings and oil sketches by Canada's Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven has proved a sensational success at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, drawing more than 41,000 visitors over a 12-week run that concluded late Sunday afternoon.

According to Dulwich officials, that translates into an average of 553 visitors a day – making the show, called Painting Canada, the second most successful in the history of the Dulwich, inaugurated in 1817 as England's first purpose-built public gallery.

Attendance at the exhibition, which opened Oct. 19 last year, was especially intense during its last week, with more than 8,000 visitors – a weekly record for the South London gallery, press officer Madeline Adeane said Monday.

In fact, on its traditional "late-view" Thursday evening last week, the Dulwich (pronounced Dull-itch) reported almost four times the total it usually gets for that time. Sales of books, catalogues and related Group/Thomson merchandise also were strong.

One of the biggest showcases ever of classic Canadian art overseas and entirely funded through private sources, Painting Canada was comprised largely of works lent by the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont. It was curated by Dulwich director Ian Dejardin, who first encountered the Group of Seven in a book in 1986 while serving as a then-26-year-old curatorial assistant at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

"The response to the exhibition has been overwhelming and we are still shell-shocked by how many visitors came to the gallery," Dejardin said in an e-mail. "It has been a pleasure to reintroduce such an amazing and talented group of Canadians to a British audience."

Speaking with The Globe last fall, Dejardin confessed to being "mystified why the rest of the world doesn't know more about Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, but I'm happy to sort that out." Around the same time NGC director Marc Mayer noted that while contemporary Canadian art by the likes of Jeff Wall and Michael Snow is "quite prominent" internationally, its historical art "deserved" greater appreciation worldwide; he expressed the hope that the Dulwich show could serve to galvanize that.

Aggressively promoted and favourably reviewed in the British press, the exhibition featured the crème de la crème of Canadian landscape paintings, including two large Thomson masterpieces, The West Wind (from the AGO) and the NGC's The Jack Pine, plus Frederick Varley's famous Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay (also from the NGC permanent collection). Another highlight was the first-ever public display of a large and little-seen British-owned Thomson canvas, Maple Woods, Bare Trunks, positioned alongside the small 1915 sketch of the same name from the NGC collection.

How to explain the show's success? Leaving the long-standing British affection for landscape painting aside, one dealer attributed the Dulwich triumph in large part to Dejardin's infectious enthusiasm, which in turn persuaded Canadian institutions and well-heeled private collectors to provide significant loans at the same time as the director fanned interest among Canadian expatriates in Britain.

Much of the exhibition now moves to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo (Jan. 29 to May 13).