Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This is the second of an occasional series of articles that I will post as I work through Cotman’s Normandy subjects at Leeds Art Gallery. In September 2016 I had the opportunity to spend the month travelling through Normandy and visited the sites of all of the subjects represented at Leeds. Dieppe was his port of landing on his first visit to Normandy in 1817. In the first article I explored Cotman’s depictions of the Church of St Jacques and here I follow in his footsteps around the castle and harbour.
He landed in Dieppe on 20 June 1817 and put up at the Hotel de Londres on the harbour front. His letters record that the weather was very hot and he sketched at nearby Arques-la-Bataille on the 21st (see LEEAG.1949.0009.0744 – the subject of a future article), Dieppe Castle ‘from two points’ on the 22nd, and the Church of St Jacques on the 23rd. The latter was the subject of the first article and ‘an undertaking of some magnitude’.
Best viewed full-size. Click on image to enlarge
Very little survives of Cotman’s on-the-spot sketches at Dieppe. Leeds has a drawing of one of the towers of the castle (LEEAG.1949.0009.0507) – which we will consider here – and Norwich Castle Museum has a sketch of the view over the harbour and town (NWHCM : L1967.9.45). Such records as he did make, however, furnished him with the subjects of three engravings for his Architectural Antiquities of Normandy published in 1822. Plate 36 is of the East End of the Church of St Jacques, Plate 35 shows the West Front and Plate 34 is an expansive view of the Castle from the beach. We will look at the beach view here, and in addition see further treatments of the castle from the south. Finally we will climb up the cliff to the north of the harbour to take the view over the whole scene as recorded in the sketch at the Castle Museum that provided the basis of two fine at the Victoria and Albert Museum (3013-1876 and P26-1934).
This is a careful soft graphite drawing of the Saint Remy Tower of the Castle at Dieppe as seen from below to the south. The tower is today very much mutilated, and the subject is recognisable only with some difficulty. A figure is kneeling in the foreground, perhaps drawing water or washing at a stream, and to the left is a glimpse of the drawbridge across the moat leading to the principal entrance to the castle in the west range. The subject is surrounded by a pencil framing line. In the 1937 typescript lists of the works in his collection (Kitson archive, Leeds Art Gallery) Sydney Kitson noted the inscription ‘J.S.Cotman’ on the verso, but this is not visible in the present mounting and remains unverified.
The bridge to the left in the present drawing is that of the drawbridge to principal entrance in the west range. From that we may infer Cotman’s exact viewpoint somewhere on the narrow road that leads up to the contemporary main entrance on the east side. Apart from the fact that the Saint Remy tower is but a stump of its former self, the route is now hemmed in, and it is impossible to take a photograph that includes the drawbridge. When the Google Earth Streetview camera came up here, however, a gate to a private yard was open, sufficient to give a glimpse of the relationship of the drawing to the site.
It may be admitted that the present composition is a less than obvious treatment of the castle. As with his treatment of the East End of the church of St Jacques Cotman seems to have very deliberately sought out a difficult, underprivileged angle, that cramped the perspective, prioritised the incidental, and generally contrived to be the very opposite of what most people would have expected in an approach to representing such a major landmark. Obscurity, if not downright contrariness, was something in which Cotman pursued as an entirely positive aesthetic. It is perhaps just as well that his other treatments took a more recognisable approach.
Cotman’s Dieppe subjects were comprehensively surveyed by Miklos Rajnai in his catalogue of Cotman’s Normandy subjects at the Norwich Castle Museum that was published in 1975. Rajnai’s catalogues of the Norwich collection, are, by the way, some of the best art-historical scholarship that I have ever worked with – and serve constantly as the aspirational model for my own work for Leeds.
Cotman made two more conventional treatments of this part of the castle. The first is a view of the drawbridge and gate on the west range. The drawbridge can be seen at the left of the Leeds drawing. This is known in various versions. The first is a studio watercolour in pencil and sepia washes at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (AL6858). Cotman adopted this monochrome style for works intended for etching, and it seems likely that the subject was intended for inclusion in Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, but failed to make the final selection. The Victoria and Albert Museum have not yet published an image of the watercolour, but the composition is repeated in an untraced watercolour known through a photograph at the Witt Library in London (mentioned by Rajnai 1975) and a watercolour copy by John Charles Denham at the Tate (T10449).
My day at Dieppe was eventually rained off, so I failed to take a photograph of my own. Cotman would I’m sure have sympathised, but not Turner, who would have carried on even with the water pouring off the brim of his hat onto the page. Nonetheless an almost exact photographic comparison can be found at:
Kitson’s 1937 catalogue entry for the Leeds drawing also notes: ‘An etching after a drawing by Cotman (1817) is in Dawson Turner’s A Tour in Normandy. This was etched by the wife of Cotman’s patron Dawson Turner, or perhaps one of his daughters, all of whom contributed plates.
Cotman was private tutor to Mrs Dawson Turner and her daughters, and virtually a full-time retainer after 1811. He taught them drawing and etching, and directed and supervised their work on making drawings of Norfolk, and latterly Normandy antiquities. Their interest was principally antiquarian, and served Dawson Turner’s interest in the Romanesque. It seems very likely that the Victoria and Albert Museum watercolour was made for them. Quite what Cotman must have thought in private of them taking his work, etching it, and publishing it in their own ‘Tour of Normandy’, two years before his own project could come to fruition is unknown. It is possible that he thought the superiority of his own etching – and the much finer specification – would prevail. All one can say is that he lived to be frequently disappointed by the public taste.
In addition to these, the British Museum has a drawing, inscribed ‘Dieppe Castle from the road to Arques’ (1902.0514.236),which shows the St Remy Tower, Castle and drawbridge from a similar angle, but much greater distance. Rajnai 1975 notes that the present drawing shows a similar aspect of the castle but from a closer viewpoint. The direct road to Arques runs south-east along the Rue de la Republique, more-or-less from the foot of the St Remy tower, but the area is now so completely built up that even a glimpse of the castle is hard to obtain.
The curator’s notes to the entry for the British Museum drawing (see http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=686912&partId=1&searchText=arques+cotman&page=1) draw attention to: ‘A watercolour version of the composition was included in the 1942 Norwich Castle exhibition ‘The seven Cotmans’, lent by Lady Holmes (photo, Witt Library; the authenticity of this work must remain open to question).
The Saint Remy tower can be seen to the left of a rather more expansive and characteristic treatment of Dieppe by Cotman in an etching published as plate 34 of his Architectural Antiquities of Normandy in 1822. Neither on-the-spot sketch nor studio drawing survive in relation to this composition, but the etching is one of his finest essays in space, rhythm and visual echoes. It is remarkable how completely the ensemble survives today, and standing on the spot it is striking how deliberately Cotman has cropped the composition, especially at the right, where the view recedes down a particularly fine line of cliffs, and at least when I was there, the surf was foaming in an arc of jade and opal. It is a classic case of less is more. Cotman retains sufficient of a panorama to give the composition a sense of space and light, but concentrates it sufficiently for the repetitions of cones, triangles and sea-facing fronts to enter into complex dialogue with the horizontals. As with all of Cotman’s etchings, it is worth examining the print closely with a magnifying glass. There is always interest in the quality of his line, and often its idiosyncrasy, but also usually in the fine detail. Here a group of soldiers is beautifully made out exercising rifle drill on the beach. Perhaps not the best time for a stroll!
Cotman’s culminating treatment of Dieppe is a view of the harbour and town taken from the still-splendid vantage point on the cliff of La Pollet, immediately to the north east.
Cotman’s sketch of the subject called Dieppe from the Heights is at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : L1967.9.45). Miklos Rajnai’s discussion of it in his 1975 catalogue of Cotman’s Normandy drawings at Norwich included a comprehensive survey of his Dieppe subjects and their various versions. The sketch is one of the few on-the-spot landscape studies to survive from his tours of Normandy. It was among the very first sketches that he made on French soil, for he landed on 20 June 1817, went to Arques la Bataille on the 21st and on Sunday 22 June wrote to his wife to describe this prospect with some enthusiasm:
‘The Town of Dieppe is built on both side of a River & almost surrounded by Cliffs as high again as those at Cromer, nearly perpendicular – from either of these cliffs you see over the town & Church & Castle, the Sea and distant cliffs for 20 miles, & up a lovely vale beyond Chateau d’arques which terminates in an amphitheatre of hills, between all, the harbour like a lake in y centre filled with vessels – & such colouring. Oh had I fortune & time beyond the limits of mortal man what might be done!!! – Nothing even as to colour can be seen in England like it.’ (Letters, I, p.98)
The view looks south west, so the time of day is late afternoon with the light on the far quays contre-jour. The general effect is similar to that in my photograph taken at 17.20 local time (15.20 GMT) on 31 August 2012. His hotel, the Hotel du Londres stands at the far end of the quay to the right, the castle and cliffs can be made out beyond that, and the cupola of the Church of St Jacques can be made out in the centre.
The sketch is the basis of two large watercolours at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Disconcertingly, Rajnai was impressed by neither, and considered both to be copies. The first, bequeathed by Lady Powell in 1934 (P.26-1934) he thought had ‘excessive scraping peculiar to a number of drawings inscribed with this date . Their attribution, at least in a number of cases, is open to doubt.’ The second was bequeathed by William Smith in 1876 but Rajnai dismisses that altogether: ‘Whilst the Lady Powell version has some merit, this is an obvious copy with complete lack of quality’. He goes on to imply that the Smith version might even be identifiable as by Mary Ann Turner that was in the Dawson Turner sale in 1853, no.811: ‘Turner (M.A.) Large View of the Town and Harbour of Dieppe, in colours, fine’.
Subsequent scholars have differed. Andrew Wilton exhibited the Lady Powell version in the exhibition The Great Age of British Watercolours at the Royal Academy in 1993, no.56, with the clear implication that it was, with everything else in the selection, a masterwork for the artist and Timothy Wilcox exhibited that version ex-catalogue at Dulwich in 2012. For what it is worth, I looked at both in 2012 and again more recently and can see no reason to doubt either.
Cotman exhibited the subject three times in quick succession. The first was at the Norwich Society of Artists in 1823 no.163 as ‘Dieppe, from the Heights to the east of the Port, looking down upon the Harbour, Castle, Churches of St Jacques and St Remi, and along the coast to St Vallery.’ The second was the following year at the Norwich Society of Artists, no.75 as ‘Dieppe, from the Heights to the east of the Port, looking down upon the Harbour, Castle, Churches of St Jacques and St Remi, and along the coast to St Vallery. Painted for J Brightwen, Esq.’ These must have been different versions of the same subject,, and presumably the second was painted for Brightwen on the basis of the first. One might expect them to have been different treatments albeit of the same view, for it would have been repetitious of Cotman to have shown similar material twice in successive years, unless there was an obvious and substantial difference between them. The third exhibit was at the Old Watercolour Society, London, 1825 no.104 as ‘Dieppe from the Heights to the East of the Port, looking down upon the Harbour, Churches of St Jacques and St Remi, and along the coast towards St Vallery’. Rajnai offers evidence that this last was the 1824 exhibit loaned by John Brightwen on the basis of a letter from Cotman to John Brightwen of 4 March 1825. The Norfolk Chronicle reported that all three of his OWCS exhibits had been sold at the private view, and Rajnai mentions that Paul Oppe discovered that the OWCS books show that deposits on the pictures were placed by a J Webster. If Cotman honoured those orders, he must presumably have produced a replica for Webster; either way in this case it looks as if we might be looking for three separate versions of the composition.
The complications of all this are more than a little boggling, and until some other version altogether emerges, there is plenty to occupy us in the two V&A pictures.
Let us start with the Lady Powell picture, for that is signed and dated 1823. The first impression is of the grandeur of the sweep, richness of the colour and the tumult of detail that it presents. It is the exact visual equivalent of his description. We might wonder, however, where all the detail of the quayside buildings comes from, for it is most certainly not in the pencil sketch. The truth of course must be that he largely made up the fine detail, and concentrated on giving the principal buildings and landmarks with reasonable accuracy. To have drawn all this accurately would have been completely impractical. That said, he does give the general character and style of the quayside buildings very well, and there are indications of fine-focused specifics, such as the presence of ground floor arcades in many of the buildings on the far quay.
Click on either image to enlarge and view in gallery:
It looks as if Cotman has drawn in the finest detail – of the fenestration, distant figures, and boats with a pen dipped in watercolour, but the rest, the distant landscape, the foreground, the water and the foreground figures, he has treated as painting, using solid colour and painterly texture. Really, Rajnai’s faint praise, ‘has some merit’ seems extraordinarily begrudging. The foreground figures are wonderful, and the richness of working suggests that he might well have had a grand essay in oils in mind.
The Smith picture re-enacts all that detail with extraordinary care and precision. It is without doubt the secondary composition, but lack very little anywhere in quality. There are occasional tiny economies; one will need strong eyes of a magnifying glass to find it but the little sentry box on the sunlit quay to distant left of centre lacks the shadow that Cotman gives it in the Lady Powell version.
In fact the more one looks the more impressive is the accuracy of the copying, sustained into the toniest and most trivial detail. This is truly the work of a craftsman at the very peak of his powers of accurate transcription, honed by twelve years or more of meticulous work on the etching plate. That said the Smith version has much more to offer than just copying. It remakes the painterly areas of the Lady Powell picture in terms of drawing. The figures are especially fine, and demonstrate his consummate economy as a draftsman. In many ways the foreground figures are better than those of the Lady Powell version, being crisper, more sharply delineated, and better defined in terms of shapes. The dog is especially deft.
Click on either image to enlarge and view in gallery: