Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This article focuses on the wonderful church of Tilney All Saints in the farmlands of West Norfolk about ten miles from King’s Lynn. This provided him with material for a fine early watercolour now at San Francisco Fine Art Museums, but never before (I believe) reproduced or discussed in the Cotman literature. This is the earliest and prime version of a composition also known in a pencil drawing at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1966.749.24 : F) and an undated etching by Cotman made c.1812-17 for his series of ‘Specimens of Norfolk Architecture.
This is the first in what will hopefully become a series retracing Cotman’s footsteps in his native county of Norfolk. He was born in Norwich in 1782, grew up there, began his career in London, and thereafter returned to work from 1806 in Norwich, from 1812 in Great Yarmouth and from 1824 back again in Norwich. His greatest pleasure was in sketching and painting the towns, coast, countryside, rivers, mills castles and churches of the county, and he devoted the greatest part of his time and energies to those subjects.
The inscription at the bottom left of the watercolour needs to be checked, but if I read it correctly as ‘461’ we may surmise that this was a member of the first set of drawings for Cotman’s lending portfolios that he created in 1809. The style would fit well with that date, and the watercolour is in particularly superb condition.
The watercolour is closely related to the pencil at Norwich Castle Museum but the drawing in that is heavy, constrained and mechanical, and clumsy around key elements – the figure and dog are significantly less well done – so as to leave little doubt that it is the work of a copyist.
That said, the pencil does vary the detail in places; the trees at the left for example, reversing the dark – light – dark sequence of the watercolour, and the details of the sky, and the pencil does appear to have a drawing series number of 1519. It may be that Cotman accessed the work of a pupil into the teaching collection!. This leaves us in want of an untraced pencil sketch from a site visit of about 1809.
The etching follows the tonal arrangement of the watercolour, but varies the sky and omits th cows in the middle distance and the foreground figure and dog. The tonal reversal of the sky is particularly successful, and makes the etching the best resolved of the compositions in terms of balance.
Tilney All Saints is about ten miles west of King’s Lynn and is one of the largest churches in West Norfolk. It was begun in the twelfth century and capped its huge tower with a spire in the fourteenth. On a site visit of 15.08.2015 I found the tower with no significant alteration from Cotman’s day, so it is interesting to compare the details of Cotman’s treatment with fact.
Cotman’s watercolour records the view from the north-west. It is not possible to obtain the same distance, for houses have been built on the west side of Church Road. It is not clear whether there was ever a pond such as that shown by Cotman, but he is usually reliable on such matters, and we may take it that it has subsequently been filled.
The tower was built in two stages. The base and first storey in the thirteenth century, and the upper two storeys and spire in the fourteenth. It seems possible from the fact that the first storey lancets (originally five in number) have been truncated, that the very heavy (and complex in section) angle buttresses were added to support the weight of the upper storeys, finials and spire. The tower is, after all, one of the most massive in all East Anglia.
So it is intriguing to discover that Cotman’s fine detail, although beautifully laid in, is really quite inaccurate. We may start at the base and work our way upwards:
In the watercolour Cotman does not at all correctly record the form of the west portal. The portal itself is Early English and presumably original to the thirteenth century base. It has subsequently been ornamented with a Decorated surround, with a triangular pediment and engaged pilasters all capped by finials that continue up to the string course of the second storey. The door case has at least two feet of space to either side before the angle buttresses begin. Cotman makes the door appear much more deeply recessed than it is in fact, ignored the Decorated casing, aligns the apex of the pediment with the string course, and makes the door case fit the full width of the flat between the buttresses. The errors are followed in both the Norwich pencil and the etching, but we might assume that his surmised untraced original sketch recorded the detail accurately.
At first floor level are three glazed Early English lancets, with one solid half-lancet at either side. It is possible that there were originally five glazed windows, but that two were filled for strength when the two upper stages were added. In any case Cotman makes the three glazed lancets fill the whole flat between the angle buttresses.
The upper storey widows are reasonably like and correctly proportioned in their space, but, again, are made to seem more deeply recessed than they are in fact. It is particularly gratifying, however, to arrive at the gargoyle waterspout, and find it perfectly noticed, although so small as for it to have been impossible for him to transmit its wonderful comic detail.
The most serious architectural problem, however relates to the angle buttresses, and this may be most clearly seen at the top of the south-west buttress. The buttress in fact is an embedded square at 45°, with its corners chamfered to make it octagonal. Each of the corners has its own smaller buttress, each in line with the main walls of the tower, so the visible to the right in the photograph faced west, and another hidden round the corner, faces south. The arrangement can be seen most clearly to the left of the photograph. Cotman has got himself somewhat awry. In the watercolour the south-west buttress does not convince us that he properly understood the form, particularly at the top where it should be most firmly differentiated. The north-west angle is also rather vague. The west-facing buttress appears correct, whilst the north-facing buttress appears angled north-west. It is worth noting that this latter issue is resolved in the pencil version, and still better treated – with some sensitive tonal differentiation – in the etching.
This might all sound like nit-picking, except that Cotman was one of the world’s finest draughtsmen, and from 1811 onwards staked his reputation on his architectural accuracy. At the date of the watercolour, however, although the quality of his observation in his on-the-spot drawings is usually superb, he still felt inclined to prioritise poetry over particulars. And in its quiet way this is certainly a poetic watercolour. Given that it was made for his drawing school portfolio, it was meant to be borrowed, studied and copied by a pupil. In this circumstances Cotman tended to provide singular motifs, the emulation of which might seem feasible to a student. The child and dog might also have provided an attractive point of identification. His draughtsmanship in such examples tends to be reductive and simplified to essentials, especially around the principal object, and the build-up of colours readily appreciable, especially by someone already inducted into his methods.
In one respect, then, in the watercolour he consciously affects a child’s eye. There are complex enough shapes to negotiate, and procedure to follow, and discipline. But there is also sheer vitality of being, and that is where he concentrates his poetry. What, might we ask, is catching everyone’s attention to the right? The whole composition returns to the figures in the bottom right hand corner. The child looks to the right as does the dog. The cows look to the right also, and the grasses and trees seem blown by a breeze from the right. The simple answer is that the weather, the wind and the light all come from the south west. Notice how carefully and subtly Cotman signals how low is the sun, by letting the right-hand tree cast a shadow on the churchyard wall. Dark clouds dominate the left distance, so we may surmise a recent cloudburst, brightening again at the end of the day. He emphasises the point by deepening the church windows and contrasting the yellow of the lit stone, with the grey spire and core of the tower. The whole point of the church tower, of course, being to beam incandescent across the flat plains of West Norfolk in any passage of sunlight.
During the second decade of the nineteenth century Cotman devoted himself to making a comprehensive survey of the antiquarian architecture of Norfolk, particularly buildings of Norman origin. Under the patronage of a Great Yarmouth banker called Dawson Turner he made hundreds of studies of such subjects and also personally etched and proofed over one hundred and fifty copper-plate prints. Sixty of these were published in 1818 under the title of ‘Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk’, and the remainder were destined for a companion volume of ‘Specimens of Norman and Ecclesiatical architecture’, advertised in 1817, but evidently not fully editioned until H G Bohn published an edition of Cotman’s etchings in 1838. These were of course subject to greater academic scrutiny than the watercolours, and had to satisfy pedantic concerns as well as offer artistic satisfaction. The subjects themselves are sometimes academic, but he general always manages to inject some sense of meditative poetry even into the dullest of objects. In fact one might say that his is a poetry of quiet things.
We may be sure that the etching of Tilney All Saints is a fully-autograph etching, wholly executed by Cotman, but not all of the plates are of such high quality. Some are more mechanical in execution and it is known that such was the workload that Cotman employed assistants to help him. It may be then that the Norwich pencil is by such an assistant, taking the watercolour, and translating it into line, suitable for transcription as an etching.
As it is Cotman decided to work on this subject himself. He would have fully realised the pitfalls the subject would offer to someone that did not fully understand the architecture. Every line in the etching is considered and creative. He uses the trees at the left as the opportunity for an explosion of calligraphic effect, and more importantly he revisited the poetry of the subject. Now the poetry if of immersion in the subject; in the graphic activity of making and imagining. So the child and dog and cows are excised, and replaced with a still more subtle detail.
It requires a magnifying glass to see clearly, but in the right middle distance, Cotman has introduced a portrait of his erstwhile self working on the original drawing. Given that Cotman has revisited and resolved almost every tonal element of the composition it is remarkable that this detail is deliberately hard to notice. He sets the shaded body and head if the figure against a shaded portion of wall (a shadow now being cast by the haystack). If that part of the wall had been light, our eye would have picked out the figure straight away. It almost as if he wanted to imbricate himself in his own motif; so involved in it as to be almost effaced. It is the image of the best to which his life aspired during the period of his immersion in deepest Norfolk.
It’s possibly a shame that Cotman did not (apparently) record the interior of Tilney All Saints church. It really is wonderful. It has a fabulous oak roof, with dozens of carved angels flitting about for all the world like a troop of owls. It has doughty Norman pillars and when I visited the whole place was burbling with warm evening light. It was particularly satisfying to find a framed reproduction of Cotman’s watercolour hanging on one of the columns in memory of Gwen Jermey who devoted a good part of her life to the church. Outside, a villager, who had lived there many years, seemed delighted in our interest in the church, and was prepared to give as much time as required to satisfy our every curiosity. Walking back to the car, which we had parked just up the road in the Parochial Hall car park (don’t park on the road – the bus can’t get by!) we passed by Cott’s Lane. It seemed the perfect address for the artist.