REVISED 12 April 2016 (DH)
This is the first Sublimesites.co article to discuss John Sell Cotman. It marks the beginning of a three-year project in which I will catalogue the near-nine hundred drawings by him in the collection of Leeds City Art Gallery. The full catalogue will be published online by Leeds Museums and Art Galleries in 2017, but from time to time I will offer a glimpse into the collection here. This particular article is, however, a decidedly oblique approach to both the Leeds Collection and Cotman, for it concerns a picture that has only a rather tenuous connection to Leeds, and a subject – a view on the island of Madeira – to which Cotman was only tenuously connected.
It does, however, connect well to a central activity of mine, that of truancy (see article of 1 December 2013). Last week, ahead of formally beginning work on the Leeds project, I enjoyed a few days on Madeira. None of my principal artistic interests ever went there, but Cotman did make one watercolour of the sea cliffs at the eastern cape of the island, the Point Lorenzo. He never saw it himself, but developed his drawing from a sketch by his Norfolk patron the Revd James Bulwer who visited Madeira in the mid 1820s. The oblique connection with Leeds is that Cotman’s watercolour was later owned by the Leeds architect Sydney Kitson. He amassed a large collection of Cotman sketches and drawings, the bulk of which he bequeathed to Leeds in 1937. As it happens he bequeathed the Point Lorenzo watercolour to the V&A in London, but despite that, given that I happened to be in Madeira, it would have been a major dereliction not to have sought out the viewpoint.
Click on images to enlarge:
The view is now perhaps the most frequently photographed and clichéd of any on Madeira. Images of it are everywhere. In the year 1828, however, when Cotman exhibited his watercolour at the Old Watercolour Society in London, his was one of the first treatments of it by a major artist, so it is worth giving some consideration to the circumstances of its making.
Cotman based his watercolour on a drawing by a Norfolk cleric, the Rev James Bulwer. He was born in Aylsham in 1794 and as a young man took drawing lessons from Cotman who started a drawing school in Norwich in 1809. Bulwer studied at Cambridge and was ordained in 1818. In the 1820s he toured in Spain, Portugal and Madeira, and became something of an expert on the landscape, flora and fauna of the latter. He was a keen natural historian and explored Madeira in successive springs of 1825 and 1826. In the first year he collected a specimen of an unknown petrel, which was named after him as Bulwer’s Petrel (Bulweria bulweri). In 1827 he published a volume of Views in the Madeiras consisting of twenty-six lithographs executed by several well-known engravers.
This was a major early contribution to the process of establishing the visual identity of Madeira, and was accompanied by a simultaneous volume entitled Rambles in Madeira in the year MDCCCXXVI  by an associate and rambling companion of Bulwer, Alfred Lyall.
This book is one of the first to treat Madeira as a recreational destination as opposed to an object of scientific or anthropological curiosity. The two volumes were published by the same publisher and intended to complement one another, and Lyall mentions Bulwer as his cicerone on the Island, and routinely makes a concordance to Bulwer’s views. Reading of Lyall’s exploration of Madeira, it is clear that Bulwer is frequently in the background sketching, and indeed Bulwer contributes substantial appendices. The two books are so closely linked as to effectively form a single illustrated publication, and between them lay a strong claim to be the first to establish Madeira as a tourist destination.
Lyall’s book is available online in a beautiful edition at the National Library of Portugal. Click on the link given in the image caption, and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.
Bulwer’s Views clearly merits the same treatment, but the National Library of Portugal does not have a copy. Indeed it is rare. The only copies that show up in COPAC, the joint National, University and Reference library catalogue of the UK, are at the British Library and V&A.
The original drawing that Bulwer made in Madeira is untraced, but we do have the engraving that appeared in ‘Views in the Madeiras’.
The viewpoint is the now well-established Miradouro da Pedra Furada on the Ponta da Rosta, looking east over the north-facing cliffs of the Ponta de Sao Lourenco to the ‘Seahorse Rocks’. Madeira is volcanic and the geology here is of richly rusted bands of ash and conglomerate, struck through with sheets of basalt. Given the savage nature of the place, and the friability of the rock it is remarkable how unchanged are the cliffs and spires, and Bulwer’s engraving clearly represents it in meticulous and reliable detail.
There are two versions of the composition in watercolour. The prime version is that at the V&A, but a second version survives in Vancouver Art Gallery, the gift in 1961 of Mrs Henry A Bulwer, a descendant of the Rev James Bulwer. At first sight one might easily take the Vancouver version to be a copy of the V&A composition, presumably by Bulwer himself. The relationship, however, is a little more complicated. It is clear from the comparison between Bulwer’s engraving and the V&A watercolour that Cotman considerably augmented Bulwer’s detail. He dramatized the sculptural forms of the rocks and cliffs, added a squall of wheeling birds (presumably Bulwer’s Petrels) threw the whole into dramatic lighting and chiaroscuro and echoed the contortions of the land with a splendid whorl of dark cloud. Bulwer’s engraving seems decidedly naturalistic against the aesthetic stylisation and dramatization of both watercolours.
The Vancouver watercolour lacks the birds but has all the principal aesthetic elements, albeit in a slightly less elaborated form. One detail, however, suggests some priority for the Vancouver picture. In Bulwer’s engraving, and in fact, there is a large detached rock in the sea to the right. This is present in the Vancouver watercolour but not in the V&A version. Likewise to the right of the tallest stack are two smaller ones. Again the Vancouver watercolour follows these more closely than does the V&A watercolour. Finally, the foreground of the Vancouver watercolour relates more closely to Bulwer’s engraving, but it is completely reinvented in the V&A treatment. It seems probable, then that the Vancouver picture, rather than being a copy by Bulwer after the V&A watercolour, is in fact by Cotman, and made as a rehearsal for the final V&A version.
In exhibiting the finished subject at the Watercolour Society in 1828 Cotman was obviously trying to align himself with the market for continental views that accompanied the explosion of World consciousness that occurred in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He had previously treated the architecture and scenery of Normandy for this market, and in the later 1820s and early 1830s made several other continental subjects. As drawn as he was to such new material, he was also conflicted about it. As consciousness expanded, so did the need for a certain sense of rootedness, and the tension is thoroughly acted out in Cotman’s later work. His interest in a distant and exotic subject such as Madeira is perhaps all the more significant for being in reality a daydream viewed from the window of his house in the Bishop’s Plain in Norwich.