Sublime slumbers

At the Castle of Arques la Bataille, near Dieppe Photograph by Olivia Hill, 5 September 2016, 12.48 GMT (Rain)
At the Castle of Arques la Bataille, near Dieppe
Photograph by Olivia Hill, 5 September 2016, 12.48 GMT (Rain) has been silent for the past few months, but I have not been idle, nor laid low. Some readers even emailed to enquire after my possible demise. I cannot overstate how grateful I am for your concern.

The less dramatic truth is that SublimeSites activities have been pushed to one side by my ongoing research on the Cotman drawings at Leeds Art Gallery. This recently became pressing when we were told that the Art Gallery (closed whilst major work takes place on the roof) will reopen in October 2017, and that an exhibition of the Cotman drawings will be one of the headline re-inaugural events.

The good news is that I have now completed about three-quarters of the cataloguing – more than 600 items so far, and am working on the final 250. Theodore Wilkins and I have drawn up a list of the potential exhibits, and besides the masterpieces in the collection, we are planning to show a veritable blizzard of his sketches. Theodore has been working on the hi-res images of everything, and is designing a superb web environment to deliver those together with the new cataloguing information. A paper conservator is looking after the works themselves and an archivist is helping sort out the mass of documentation that relates to the collection, including Sydney Kitson’s notebooks, card indexes, correspondence and personal cataloguing data.

I spent the whole month of September in Normandy exploring in Cotman’s footsteps. Cotman made three tours there in 1817, 1818 and 1820, and published a major book, Architectural Antiquities of Normandy in 1822 containing 100 plates drawn and etched by himself. Leeds has a mass of drawings from those tours. The vast majority of them are figures studies, all of them deft, some wonderfully characterful, others poignant and full of human sympathy. There are also numerous carriages, carts and wagons, donkeys, horses and diligences. And there are studies of landscape and architecture, and several of the published etchings. I concentrated on visiting all the identifiable sites in the Leeds collection, and found that a very great deal remains to be recognised, and that being on site often offered numerous insights into his practice.

It taught me how hard Cotman worked on his tours – he was up at 6 am most days to start sketching, and what a huge task he took on. As it happens, 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the first of those tours, so in working my way through the material that I have accumulated, I have started with a few 1817 subjects represented in the Leeds collection. In the days and weeks to come I will post a few articles to SublimeSites to explore some of those sites in sequence. I hope they prove enjoyable in themselves, and whet the appetite for a full treatment of the Leeds material, and perhaps, sometime, a detailed treatment of the full range of sites and material.

Church of St Pierre, Vatierville. Photograph by David Hill, 5 September 2016, 10.50 GMT
Church of St Pierre, Vatierville.
Photograph by David Hill, 5 September 2016, 10.50 GMT


One thought on “Sublime slumbers

  1. It so happens that 2017 is also the two hundredth anniversary of Turner’s 1817 Rhine drawings! I am glad you are alive and doing so well with researching and cataloguing the Cotman drawings. I am still teaching summers at St. Mary’s University here in San Antonio, but it’s been studio art rather than art history. Have been taking watercolor classes as well and my painting is improving a bit.
    What do you think of the new Shanes Turner biography? I just read Julian Bell’s review of this and the bio by Franny Moyle in the New York Review of Books.
    John Gage’s title referring to “A Wonderful Range of Mind” seems to aim at the crux of meaning in his art and life. Understanding the context of the Augustan 18th century cultural milieu of his youth, the influence of Reynolds and the Royal Academy, of Dutch painting, of Claude Lorraine, as well as his own expressed thoughts in his Lectures –rather than the “truth to nature” interpretation brought on from contact with his late works by Ruskin, would lay the broad foundations for a method of divining the meaning of his works. The social historians, including Ruskin and the filmmaker of the recent movie about Turner in his last years, want to judge him by the social and religious standards of the Victorian 1840’s, which miss the mark quite significantly. His roots, his RA training, his primary relationship with his father, his reading of many types of literature such as the poetry of Pope and Byron, Gothic novels, travel guides, the antiquarian commissions and inspiration in reviving romantic passions for medieval architecture, and yes, the sublime as a modern art aesthetic reaching from the mid-18th century to Jackson Pollock, as well as his fierce ambitions for his art and the revolutionary events of the romantic era in which he lived all informed his mind and art in more fundamental ways. He was not a natural English landscape painter as was Constable, but one who embraced the full thrust of the momentum of modern European painting. There needs to be a 500 or 1,000 page study of his art that interprets individual works within the broad range of sources and influences informing the “movements of his mind” as he worked on them. For while his techniques were revolutionary and approached abstraction at the end, his choice of subject matter was practical and rather conservative. His painterly vision of Norham Castle of the 1840’s was quite different stylistically than his first oil of the subject based on his pencil sketches from 1795, yet his art advanced in an organic manner just as a tree grows from its roots. His direct experience in front of his motifs involved not just his eye as topographer and recorder of nature and atmospheric effects, but a profound intellectual and emotional sense of the historical and cultural significance of the places and monuments he sketched and painted. This is why his face will adorn 20 pound notes. He chose to paint Rouen Cathedral decades before Monet, another nature mystic with a revolutionary art style, whose life did not fit squarely within the norms of 19th century bourgeois social values, and yet whose art also serves as a symbolic system of national pride as well as prefiguring the mainline painterly expressionism and abstraction of the twentieth century.

    It would be good to hear from you– even see you and Olivia again if possible,
    your friend as ever,
    Mary Tussey Morrell

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