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Canadian artists to get big display in London

A trove of paintings by Tom Thomson and his contemporaries is being carted off to London in what's being called the largest international travelling exhibit of Group of Seven works to date.

Ian Dejardin, director of the prestigious Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London and an unabashed fan of Thomson's work, described the exhibition he organized as akin to removing Canada's crown jewels. Or "like asking the Louvre for the Mona Lisa," he added, speaking at a presentation in Toronto Monday unveiling details of the exhibition.

The 123 works – actually 122 paintings, plus an extensive collection of Thomson's sketches – are coming from 17 public and private collections in North America and Europe, including the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

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What would normally be a logistical headache, as any exhibition on such a grand scale can be, was made much easier after Dejardin broached the idea in 2009 to media magnate and art collector David Thomson (no relation to the late Canadian artist, who died after a short career in 1917 at the age of 39).

Dejardin had wanted to exhibit Thomson for years. "I had been over to Canada in 2006, I think it was, and talked to various people about the possibility of a show. But nothing really came out of that visit." It wasn't until he met David Thomson, he said, that doors quickly opened.

Dulwich is known for exhibiting major artists who tend not to have been widely shown in Britain. The aim of this show is not simply to hang the most significant Group of Seven paintings, but to feature Dejardin's personal choices – and to show off the stylistic links they had with European Expressionism and Scandinavian art of the same period. The exhibit will also highlight how Thomson transformed his sketches into highly detailed paintings.

The last Group of Seven showing in Britain was in 1991 at the Barbican in London, part a larger survey of Canadian art from the 1890s to the Second World War. There has never been a show of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson in Europe "quite of this scale," Dejardin said.

"It's a mixture of the personal and the institutional. I've been wanting to do this for 25 years," Dejardin added. The large exhibit will also help celebrate the Dulwich's bicentennial as England's first public art gallery.

Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven will be at London's Dulwich Picture Gallery from Oct. 16 to Jan. 8 before touring to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo from Jan. 29 to May 13 and to the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands from June 3 to Oct. 28, 2012.

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Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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