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Thomson, Group of Seven to cross the pond

Frederick H. Varley's Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay.

Three of Canada's most beloved paintings are heading overseas this fall for the first exhibition in England to focus exclusively on the art of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.

Frederick Varley's Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay and Thomson's The Jack Pine are being lent to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London by the National Gallery of Canada along with The West Wind, another Thomson canvas, from the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. They're among 124 paintings and oil sketches Dulwich director Ian Dejardin has chosen for Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, scheduled to open Oct. 19 for a run ending Jan. 8, 2012.

Works by Thomson, who died in 1917, and the original Group, established in 1920, have been shown in Britain before, most famously at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. But in each case they've been included as part of a larger survey: The 1924 show, for instance, had 37 Group of Seven canvases and seven Thomsons, but this was only about 17 per cent of the Canadian offerings on view.

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The show at the Dulwich (pronounced Dull-itch), opened in 1817 as England's first purpose-built public gallery, with a collection containing works by Rubens, Rembrandt and Raphael, has been on Dejardin's mind since 1986 when he was working as a curatorial assistant at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

"One day one of the students brought back a pile of books he'd been looking at, one of which was about the Group of Seven," Dejardin recalled during a recent visit to Toronto. "I'd never heard of them." But as he flipped through its pages, "I was completely blown away."

Especially appealing was J.E.H. MacDonald's Falls, Montreal River, a canvas owned by the Art Gallery of Ontario. "I quietly made a mental note that if I was ever in a position to do an exhibition of this stuff, I would. It took me 25 years," he laughed, "but I got there in the end." (The MacDonald will be part of the British show.)

Named director of the Dulwich in 2005, Dejardin engaged in "an immediate abuse of power" by "slamming a Tom Thomson/Group of Seven show on my proposed exhibition list." A year later, during a visit to Canada (his first) to deliver a lecture in Kingston, Dejardin visited the three great repositories of Group of Seven/Thomson art - the AGO, the National Gallery and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont.

Dejardin's original plan was to try to persuade "a great Canadian institution" to pull together a Group/Thomson show "which I would then take for the Dulwich."But no institution took up the offer, perhaps because only a few years earlier the AGO and the National Gallery had collaborated on a significant Thomson retrospective. Still, Dejardin's vision of a big show of Canuck art in England struck a chord with individuals such as Charles Hill, the National Gallery's curator of Canadian art, and Toronto collector David Thomson. "In short order it was decided I would curate it," on the understanding Dejardin would be given access to many public treasures and introductions to sundry private collectors.

It's all turning out rather smashingly, according to Dejardin, who expects the exhibition, for which he's preparing a substantial catalogue, will prove a hit with British gallery goers. "I am 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."

Of course, the Canadian lending institutions have their hopes, too. As the National's Hill notes, "the Group doesn't have much of an international image … and it's always a difficult thing to present an exhibition abroad of an art that's largely unknown." But given that Painting Canada has been assembled mostly by the head of a major English institution and many of the lent works are the crème de la crème, Hill thinks the prospects for positive local appreciation are high.

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Hill's gallery is contributing 37 works to the show, which will move to two venues that recently have been added to the exhibition's itinerary following the London stop - the National Museum for Art and Architecture in Oslo and the Groninger Museum in Groningen, Holland. The AGO is lending 25 works to Dulwich "and we'll lend as many things as we can to the show's extension," AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum said this week. The McMichael has confirmed its loan of 26 works (it has yet to confirm its participation in the post-London tours but "it's probably a go," a gallery spokesperson said).

One coup for the Dulwich show is that, for the first time, a little-seen Thomson canvas, Maple Woods, Bare Trunks, owned by a private British collector, will be hung alongside the 1915 sketch on wood panel, from the National Gallery, that Thomson used as the basis for the larger work.

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