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Canadian masterworks uncrated for historic show at British gallery

In an elegant, 200-year-old gallery in England, one of Canada's most famous paintings is getting a boot in its bottom. Well, at the least the crate containing it is.

"I need a foot here," calls one of the technicians at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, where a historic show called Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven will open on Oct. 19, to run until Jan. 8, before touring to Norway and the Netherlands.

Another technician walks up and sticks a booted foot under the six-foot-tall blue crate that contains Thomson's The West Wind, on loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario (where someone has helpfully written "top" on the upper edge of the box). Together they give a heave and lower one of the treasures of the Canadian art world onto its back. Fourteen bolts are unscrewed, to reveal an inner crate, this one specially designed to hold Thomson's 1916 painting.

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Ian Dejardin, the director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, is not quite chewing his nails, but pretty close. He admits he didn't sleep much on Thursday, the night before the uncrating. He spent much of the past couple of years cajoling more than 100 seminal works off the walls of major galleries in Canada – the National, the McMichael, the AGO – as well as from private collectors.

But he needn't have worried about the paintings, which in many ways have had a nicer trip from Canada than most economy passengers. They were flown to the Netherlands in three lots, each accompanied by a chaperone. The crates, for insurance reasons, give no indication of the valuables within, except for labels that say "fragile – glass" and "this side up."

They arrived in England in climate-controlled trucks, and will go on view for three months in the most comprehensive European exhibit of Group of Seven paintings since the groundbreaking artists' show at the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1924 and 1925. (British critics were notably kinder to Thomson and the Group of Seven than critics at home, who labelled the pictures ugly and "freakish.")

The technicians tug on canvas straps on either side of the crate, and The West Wind – its bent tree and foam-flecked lake familiar to schoolchildren across Canada – slowly rises into view. "Will you look at that," said Mr. Dejardin, although it's been less than a week since he last saw the painting in Canada.

"It's like seeing somebody from your family in a different setting," said Gregory Humeniuk of the Art Gallery of Ontario, who is in London to help with the exhibit. "You start to appreciate all sorts of new characteristics."

Another Thomson painting, The Jack Pine, on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, will hang next to The West Wind, a one-two punch that Mr. Dejardin hopes will impress homesick Canadians and curious Brits alike. "I'm going to prepare a stretcher for any Canadians coming in the door," he said.

It's true that the twisted and turbulent landscapes of A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris and Franklin Carmichael will be alien to many of the visitors to Dulwich, who are more used to beech trees and boxwood hedges than snow-capped mountains and northern lakes. They'll present an unusual juxtaposition to the rest of the Dulwich, which was the first public art gallery opened in England and is dominated by Old Masters and portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

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But will the lure of the great Canadian wilderness be enough to entice visitors to this picturesque suburb on the south edge of London? Mr. Dejardin, who's wanted to curate a Group of Seven show since he saw a reproduction of J.E.H. Macdonald's Falls, Montreal River more than 20 years ago, certainly hopes so. "In England, people love a landscape. Even though they've seen trees and grass and water before, these are not like any landscapes they've seen. There's a mystery here."

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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