Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This is the second in my intended series of reports on sites drawn by John Sell Cotman in his native county of Norfolk. A recent mini-tour of sites around King’s Lynn allowed me to take in the ocean-liner sized church of Terrington St Clements, about five miles north of Tilney All Saints, the subject of my previous article. The church has Saxo-Norman origins, but the present structure dates from a comprehensive rebuild in the late fourteen and fifteenth centuries. [note 1]. Cotman appears to have visited the site in 1811 when he made a tour of the area to make reference drawings of subjects for a project one which he had just conceived, a grand series of etchings of architectural and antiquarian subjects in Norfolk.
He presumably made several studies of the church and its details, sadly his original drawings are all untraced, and selected the view of the south porch, with the body of the church behind, the grand stone spires of the great west end of the church, and the top of the huge detached tower behind all, which provided the crowning point for the new church as it was finished at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
In some respects it seems quite a strange subject selection – the west front is a grand subject, and the full scale of the church is best comprehended from the south east, but by the time that he came to this subject, Cotman had made several views of churches, great and small, for the series. He had also become progressively engaged with the wonderful decorative intricacies of his subjects, and the selection of this subject seems to have been designed to fill as much as possible of the image space with decorative interest.
This etching was made by Cotman c.1817 for his series ‘Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk’, published in 1818 [note 2]. It is related to a pencil drawing now untraced but known from its reproduction in the catalogue of an exhibition at Walker’s Gallery in London in 1926.
There could be some debate as to the nature of the relationship between the etching and the pencil drawing. The latter is a distillation of the linear information in the subject, but lacks any of the atmosphere, tone and pathos of the etching, which is altogether richer and more elaborate. If the details of the etching were derived from the pencil, then they were transcribed with almost slavish precision. This seems unlikely when the plate is an entirely autograph work by the artist, rather than a transcription by a professional etcher. The result is almost completely devoid of atmosphere or affect. A powerful sense of personality in the quality of his drawing is a defining Romantic characteristic of Cotman’s work. One would expect much more of it, even in a drawing done for accuracy. Even of his etchings it was observed to him; ‘you transfer yourself on to copper wonderfully’ [note 3], and that is the principal source of their aesthetic distinctiveness. In the pencil drawing the foreground is very perfunctory, and it seems most likely to me that the pencil it is a copy from the etching; even a tracing – it would be interesting to lay one on the other to check the registration, given that they are the same overall dimensions.
At first sight it appears that every element of Cotman’s subject has survived to this day. On the little path that leads to the south portal, it is possible to line up the elements pretty much exactly as the etching gives them. It was only in looking at my photographs afterwards that I remembered something quite important. Cotman generally sat on a little stool when he worked. My photograph is taken from a standing position. In Cotman’s etching there are closer to the ground, and we can see less of the clerestory windows beyond the porch. To be honest I feel a bit irritated with myself for not registering on the spot that Cotman transmits the exact sense of his viewing position in the image.
His original drawing must have taken quite some time – it’s no mean feat just to notice the variety of form and detail presented here – let alone to set down adequate record of it. He might well have made multiple studies, including details, and had to do quite a lot of counting, to make sure he got the right number of elements in his drawing. Today it is all too easy to take all that entirely for granted. A camera records all this without one having to think about much more that what direction one is facing and which button to press.
Since Cotman virtually invites the viewer to sit down and consider the detail for ourselves, he inevitably invites a comparison of his consideration to our own. We will quickly discover that there are some grounds for enquiry. It would be tedious to list every discrepancy. He has devised for us a rather special game of ‘spot the difference’. I doubt that I have spotted them all, but suffice it to say that the tower, the roof, the crenulations, the fenestration, and the shapes of windows and portals will all reward scrutiny. The real question is, rather, what might all these deviations mean?
Does it mean that despite his outstanding draftsmanship; despite his claim to authority as a drawing master; despite his avowed purpose of offering a correct record, he turns out to be as prone to error as anyone, after all? Very likely. We are all bound to be hoist by the petard of our own pretensions. But perhaps Cotman may not be hoist quite as high as all that.
The error that might most obviously condemn him might not be quite so clear-cut, after all. Look (if you haven’t already noticed) at the shape of the portal arch. It’s obvious that Cotman’s etching gives it something of an ogee [ie it curves upwards right at the apex]. This would have been typical of Perpendicular period architecture, and of the period, say the late fifteenth century that the porch was built. The reality, however is that the arch is much flatter and altogether less flamboyant. Still it’s hard to imagine that Cotman would just have invented the ogee.
If we look at the windows in the side of the porch we might have the makings of a solution. These window-heads are shallow ogees, and almost exactly the same shape as that of Cotman’s portal. Wondering about this, I did a little casting about and discovered that J M Wilson’s ‘Gazetteer of England and Wales’, 1870-72 says that the church was ‘thoroughly repaired’ in 1829. F White’s ‘’Gazetteer of Norfolk’, 1854 says that this process included the church being ‘new roofed and the lofty pinnacles restored’. This leaves quite some room for change in the interval since Cotman’s observations in 1811. . Cotman’s roof covering is decidedly less tidy that the present one, and it seems very likely that the arch must have been renewed and that Cotman’s depiction accurately records the original.
Some of Cotman’s observations are so specific as to leave no doubt that they must have been accurate. Looking at stonework of the gable and angle buttresses, it emerges that Cotman accurately records the shape of every stone. This breaks down a little towards the centre of the gable, but only because the space is now occupied by a sundial. It seems to me very likely that this would have been a part of the 1829 restoration, and equally so that the stones and infilling that Cotman records so painstakingly are entirely accurate. It would have been the obvious first step to reface the ashlar to provide a decent ground on which to carve the new sundial.
One particularly impressive feature of Cotman’s detail is his treatment of the frieze of punched roundels above the portal. Close inspection of these reveals that the diamond bosses in the centre are each unique – an allowance of individual expression and variety that marks pre-Renaissance craftsmanship.
Ruskin loved this human touch, as you may read in his ‘Stones of Venice’. And so did Cotman. His etchings are distinctly less firm in comparison to the work of an experienced specialist engraver, and his architectural form likewise unmechanical in comparison to that of an architectural draftsman, but that is their precisely the source of their charm and personality. In this case, although we might imagine that he recorded the individuality of these bosses in his original sketches, the scale of the etching did not quite allow him to give the precise variations. Nevertheless, working with the given constraints, he does demonstrate their difference. On close examination, every single one of the centres of these roundels is different. Not defined, perhaps, but individuated, each one the recognition and identification of an individual consciousness.
So might all the discrepancies be explained by the 1829 or later restoration? There are a few details that resist such explanation. The first is the fifth window of the clerestory, which is distinctly wider than the others; another is the clerestory window heads, which have in fact a significant depth of masonry separating them from the cornice above; yet another is the decoration of the nave crenulations.
In the nave crenulations the lower tier is one continuous arcade, but in the larger panels Cotman shows the lancets extending to the upper tier. Strangely he does this only at level of the nave, the crenulations of aisle and tower are drawn correctly. We cannot rule out Cotman being correct after all, but I have not managed to find any contemporary or earlier image of the church. It seems unlikely, but it may be that Cotman was the first artist to publish an image of Terrington St Clement. ‘The Norfolk Topographer’s Manual: Being a Catalogue of the Books and Engravings Hitherto Published in Relation to the County’ of 1842 includes a list of illustrations of Norfolk subjects published up to that point. For Terrington St Clement it lists only two, Cotman’s and another by Ladbooke. The latter was published in 1821, and so pre-dates the 1829 restoration and might thus shed some light on Cotman’s accuracy. Sadly its detail is so poor that it tells us nothing, except for the very much greater care expended by Cotman.
The next that I can find is by J Johnson and dates from about 1840. Post-restoration it records the church exactly as we find it today, in what is most certainly a tour de force of architectural crispness, accuracy and precision. It is many things that the Cotman is not, but in ways that Cotman long before rejected. When visiting Peterborough Cathedral in 1804 he told his patron Dawson Turner that ‘Peterborough is too perfect for my pencil. Every architect can make a better Drawing from that than I can. Therefore to them I will yield up my claims.’ Rather, at Terrington his field of view, his position of view, is the image of an individual situation, and a personal engrossment in the task. If it is flawed, and if the discrepancies are mistakes, we can have little doubt that he would to some extent have been disappointed with himself, but it remains the authentic representation of his personal endeavour. It has a wisdom that the Japanese artist accepted long before: that nothing that is humanly good will be perfect.
Finally we must give some consideration to the figure in the image. Most of Cotman’s architectural subjects feature some human interest. Figures on thresholds have a particular poetic resonance for him [note 4]. In this case he has introduced a young woman and child on the threshold. We might immediately take this to be an obvious Christian allusion, and so it might be except for the fact that on close inspection her face is a picture of abject misery, and the child is bonneted to set them in the contemporary world. She looks intently towards the tombstone, as if to imply a bereavement. Beyond that, we may only hypothesise. I might say that St Clement is a patron saint of sailors, and was martyred by drowning. Terrington St Clement is near the coast, particularly the port of King’s Lynn, and several of its menfolk would have gone to sea. Whatever the case, Cotman intends us to wonder about this woman, and to set a personal pathos against the enduring fabric of the church, the situation of artist and, not least, the situation of ourselves, enjoying the pleasures of poetry and art.
1 There appears to be some disagreement about the exact date. The English Heritage listing says that the visible result is all fifteenth century. White’s Gazetteer of Norfolk 1854 says it was built in 1380. The latter gives no source, but the date is very precise, and appears to give a very plausible date, at least for the commencement of the work.
2 Published as Plate 57 of 60, although the plates after no.49 are not numbered.
3 Letter from Francis Cholmeley to Cotman, 24 February 1811, quoted in D.Hill, Cotman in the North, Yale University Press, 2005, p.162.
4 I have discussed another instance of this in his Earlier etching of ‘The Manor House, York’ in my ‘Cotman in the North’ (Yale University Press, 2005, p.162)
And finally; Cotman would have particularly enjoyed painting these windows: