Cotman and St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk: Part 1

St Benet’s Abbey from the south
Photograph taken by David Hill, 7 March 2017, 11.15 GMT
Click on image to view at full size.

This is a further instalment in a series that retraces Cotman’s footsteps through his native county of Norfolk. Here we visit the isolated site of St Benet’s Abbey. This stands in a marshy plain near the junction of the rivers Ant and Bure about ten miles directly ENE of Norwich, but much further by road, south of the village of Ludham. The abbey has long since disappeared, but in the eighteenth century its gateway was pressed into service as the foundation and outbuildings of a tower windmill. This became one of the most important subjects to artists in Norfolk during the Romantic period, and for Cotman the subject for two of his greatest works.

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)
St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk; the gateway and windmill from the south. Called ‘East View of the Gateway of St Bennet’s Abbey’, 1813
Etching printed in black ink on heavyweight off-white wove paper, image 241 x 372 mm on plate 276 x 380 mm (10 7/8 x 15 ins) on sheet as published
Etched by Cotman 1813 and issued to subscribers as pl 25 of his Norfolk Antiquities in part five (consisting of six plates) in April or May 1813. Published as a complete set of sixty plates in one volume in 1818.
John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)
St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk, 1831
Watercolour with paste medium on white wove paper watermarked ‘J Whatman 1830’, 320 mm x 470 mm
Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM: 1947.217.211 : F
Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums

Cotman sketched and painted windmills throughout his career. For him they articulated a poetry of relationship with the elements. He made dozens of works in which they figure. Many are arresting images, but in St Benet’s he found a composition that must be judged a masterpiece by anyone’s standards.

What is more, he found it in a quite unexpected place. For it is not in a watercolour or a painting, but rather in a line etching, and in a project whose objective was more antiquarian than artistic.

In 1811 Cotman embarked on a series of sixty etchings of architectural subjects in Norfolk. He was not so much interested in the grandest subjects such as Norwich Cathedral, but rather in out-of-the way curiosities, humble survivals down obscure back lanes and overgrown churchyards. St Benet’s satisfied all these preferences. Its site is the flat Bure marshland north of Acle and today is approached down a narrow (but mostly surfaced) field track from Ludham, or for many contemporary tourists, by boat. It stands in an ocean of space, and seems designed with the sole idea of pointing out the scale of the sky. St Benet’s, it has to be said, is a building of extremely incidental architectural or antiquarian interest. There was once a major medieval abbey here, although it is difficult to fathom quite why, since the site is pretty much without foundations. Unsurprisingly the abbey itself is now levelled to the sward. The only surviving historical structure is the abbey’s gatehouse redeveloped in the eighteenth century as the site of a windmill to grind rape seed, and then sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century adapted as a wind pump to lift water from the surrounding grazing land into the river Bure.

St Benet’s Abbey from the south-west
Photograph taken by David Hill, 7 March 2017, 11.23 GMT
Click on image to view at full size.

Cotman made several visits to St Benet’s. The first is dateable to 1807 or 1808, and resulted in an upright watercolour at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight recording the mill from the west:

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)
St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk, from the south-west , c.1808
Graphite and watercolour on white wove paper, 282 x 224 mm
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery: From the Lady Lever Art Gallery collections (LL 3946)
Image courtesy of National Galleries on Merseyside.
To see this image in the NGM’s own website, click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:

The view looks more-or-less directly across the face of the gatehouse to a distant postmill. If the distant mill ever existed, it would have been located near the junction of the Hundred Stream and the Thurne River, but there is nothing indicated in that north-east direction in the map of Norfolk published by William Faden in 1797.

William Faden (publisher)
Map of Norfolk, 1797
Detail of the area around St Benet’s Abbey.

Comparison of the watercolour with the surviving architecture shows that whilst Cotman carefully follows the general positioning of openings and the general masses, there is significant variation in specifics. The exact detail of the angle buttress to the right, for example, is altered, as is that of the embedded buttress at the foot of the tower. Cotman also suggests that the ground floor doorway to the tower was a Norman portal of stone, but in fact appears always to have been of more prosaic and functional brick. Today there are windmills visible to the east of St Benet’s on the river Thurne at Thurne, and Cotman could easily have been remembering one of those. Faden’s map indicates a ‘Drain Mill’ directly east of St Benet’s.

This watercolour is painted in a slightly naif style with well-defined washes and a frank sense of process that Cotman turned into a distinctive manner in the years about 1808. The style coincides with his first extended essays in oil painting, and also with the establishment of a series of drawings for circulation amongst his pupils. He advertised a series of six hundred of these in 1809, and the Lady Lever watercolour bears a number ‘1276’ that shows that eventually it took its place in the series. For the more advanced students, who were practicing painting in watercolour, the frankness of the process would have made it a good example to copy.

The San Francisco Museum of Art has a version of the composition that is almost certainly such a copy by an able pupil:

after John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)
St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk, from the south-west , c.1808
Graphite and watercolour on white wove paper, 289 x 233 mm
USA, San Francisco Fine Art Museums, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, 1963.24.4
Image courtesy of Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts.
To see this image in the San Francisco Fine Art Museums own website, click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:

The detail is followed carefully and in some respects, especially the foreground grasses, exceeds the original. The colour is generally more bold, and the sky altogether more dramatic. The quality of detail, particularly in the way that it understands the mechanics of the windmill is also impressive. The quality of the paintwork, however, lacks the delicacy that generally distinguishes the hand of John Sell Cotman, but we must nonetheless admit that this must have been a pupil of outstanding ability, very closely supervised, and one that had very well assimilated the artist’s approach.

Click on any image to open full size, with captions in gallery view:

This seems a good place to post what I’ve written thus far. I’ll come back to Cotman’s 1813 etching shortly. But first we should think about windmills as a subject a little more generally.

5 thoughts on “Cotman and St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk: Part 1

  1. Hi David,

    Firstly please let me congratulate you on the website, it’s great to see so much information presented in a scholarly yet easily digestible format.

    Specifically, I have an interest in the Norwich School of Artists (predominantly the Crome’s) but I do have a copy of John Sell Cotman’s etching ‘East View of the Gateway of St. Benet’s Abbey’ which I note you illustrate on this site. With regards to this particular image and indeed his etchings in general I have a couple of questions that I wonder whether you could answer:

    1) I realise this was originally published as part of ‘Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk’ but I’m interested to know whether this was actually a bound book.
    2) Do you know whether the original plates were copper or steel and how many impressions were taken.
    3) Has anyone compiled a catalogue raisonne of Cotman’s etchings? I do have a copy of the book ‘Etchings of the Norwich School’ by Geoffrey R. Searle which is bursting with interesting facts but sadly it doesn’t contain any definitive listings.

    Any help or advice would be appreciated.

    Kind regards,
    Nick Drax

    1. Hi Nick
      Thank you for your interest and questions. I can answer your first question definitively: Yes, the sixty etchings of Norfolk Antiquities were published in volume form in 1818. Copies of that do appear on the market from time to time.

      I can answer the first part of the second question definitively. All of Cotman’s own etchings were on copper. Steel wasn’t widely used until the 1830s.

      The numbers printed is much harder to ascertain. From what I have been able to glean Cotman probably had no more than 200 impressions taken of the Norfolk Antiquities. He had over a hundred subscribers and appears to have ordered editions in batches of one hundred impressions. Interest tailed off as he was working on the project, so the 1818 collected edition was probably made up of the unsubscribed prints of a second edition.

      This is all complicated by the fact that in 1838 the London publisher H G Bohn produced a two-volume edition of [pretty much] all of Cotman’s architectural etchings. He reworked some of the plates to give them more punch, and printed quite a lot – possibly 500 – so that many of the plates show significant effects of wear in the later impressions. Bohn editions are more frequently met with that Cotman’s own.

      Any finally, no-one has yet compiled a proper catalogue raisonne of the etchings. A E Popham published a list and an essay in ‘The Etchings of J S Cotman’ in the Print Collectors’ Quarterly’ in 1922, but that is incomplete.

      There is an obvious need for one, and I have started work on something and am about to make an announcement. However I have been forced to recognised that it will be a huge undertaking to do it properly, and will require considerable funding and resources [not least in terms of lifespan]. Still I am going to make a start!


    2. I might also direct you to Andrew Hemingway’s article ‘The English Piranesi: Cotman’s Architectural Prints’ in The Walpole Society’s Annual Volume for 1980-82. (p.210 ff). He says there that a catalogue was underway, but that must have been Miklos Rajnai, who died leaving it undone. DH

  2. Thank you so much for this information, I already feel more enlightened and now know other resources that I can tap into.

    Although I now live in Norfolk I’m originally from East Yorkshire, latterly residing in a village near Howden. I know Cotman also produced an etching of Howden Church/Minster which I’m now on the lookout for. It would be super to have a print by such a Norfolk talent depicting an old stamping ground.

    I wish you the best of luck in your endeavours to produce a catalogue raisonne of Cotman’s etchings and I think it’s a reasonable assumption that, once published, one of the first sales will be to a certain Yorkshireman residing on Norfolk. Please keep me informed.

    Thanks again,

  3. I see that the PMC (and BL) are launching a project Graphic Landscape: The Landscape Print Series in Britain, c. 1775–1850 ( with a seminar online – short presentations only asked for, but Mark Hallett and Felicity Myrone are evidently working on some larger study which explicitly cites JSC along with Turner etc as part of it. This St Benet’s study seems to exemplify Cotman’s expanded eploration on a theme that ought to be given more attention. Norma Watt (formerly Norwich) was the ‘keeper’ of Miklos’ papers which you might enquire about, to see how far his catalogue of etchings got.

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