Cotman’ and St Benet’s Abbey: Part 2

This is the second part of an article exploring Cotman’s association with St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk.

St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk, from the North
Photograph by David Hill taken 7 March 2017, 11.46 GMT

In 1811 Cotman committed himself to a major series of etchings of Norfolk antiquarian subjects. The work was to become his primary preoccupation for the next five or six years, and he threw himself into it with several excursions into the depths of the Norfolk countryside in search of subjects. His travels seem to have taken him once again to St Benet’s Abbey, for the Norwich Castle Museum has a fine pencil sketch from about this time showing the windmill from the north.

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)
St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk, from the north, c.1812
Graphite on white, wove paper, 288 x 213 mm;
Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1966.749.12
Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums
To see this image in the Norfolk Museums’ own website, click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:!/?q=cotman%2Bbenet

In this drawing we can see that the windmill was by this time in use as a draining mill, for the water scoop is plainly visible at the bottom right. From this angle Cotman could concentrate on the intricacies of the structure and its workings. The vanes are turned towards us, although they are not in service because the sails are shown furled to the spar (ie the leading edge of the vane).

Cotman knew about windmills, knew the different types, the different types of sail, the varieties of purposes they served and the mechanics whereby such functions were delivered. And indeed until the advent of steam so would most countrymen, in the same way that anyone that lived near water would know about boats. Nowadays most of us know a windmill when we see one and have decided opinions about wind turbines, but really know almost nothing about them of any substance. Today, almost no-one would know what was the difference between a post mill, a tower mill and a smock mill, still less the difference between a common sail and a patent sail, or the different types of cap, and definitely nothing about how to make any of this work, or how to head the sails into the wind and get them turning.

Actually, even in Cotman’s time there were levels of ignorance of such matters. Even amongst professed artists; but Cotman made it a matter of artistic and professional pride to draw with a thorough understanding of whatever it was before him, and he was a specialist in windmills. In fact in most things Cotman set standards of discrimination that were beyond the ken of many, if not the majority, of his audience. In the matter of windmills, as with most such matters he emerges from the field with distinction.

Fortunately there are some excellent resources to inform us. A few years ago Timothy Wilcox (with Michael Pidgley, Michael Short and Jennifer Tann) put together a splendid exhibition called ‘The Romantic Windmill’ (Hove Museum and Art Gallery, 1993). The catalogue is well worth seeking out:

There is also a splendid resource just a click away.
This is an odyssey by Jonathan Neville to collate a pictorial and historical record of all the mills that can be traced in Norfolk.

To return to the Norwich drawing, one obvious issue affecting windmills was the fact that they involve a great number of long spars of timber. The availability of timber, and the technology for cutting and processing it was fundamental to the design and character of the structure. In Cotman’s day, the availability of square-cut, long, straight, strong spars was a relatively recent condition. Older windmills were often made of anything-but-straight boughs. Even originally straight timbers had a habit of warping over time, with the result that many windmills were in an entertainingly deformed condition. The Port Sunlight and San Francisco watercolours show well the extremely long spars that were required to make the mechanism for turning the cap into the wind, or the very strong straight timbers that were required to make the sail spars. It is easy now to underestimate how crucial timbers of such length once were. It is interesting to compare a fully-restored Dutch example, with machined timbers, with the old hand-sawn and riven equivalents.

Click on any image to open in gallery, and read captions:

To judge from this drawing, St Benet’s was not without its idiosyncrasies. The staging was required to lift the turning platform to a sufficient height that the spars would reach from the cap. That alone appears to have been a major investment of labour and materials; though perhaps the result was never quite so sturdy as the miller might have preferred.

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)
St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk, from the north, c.1812
Detail of staging

Once one begins to open up the topic of windmills, even a little, a door opens into a word full of its own poetry and insights. That, Cotman would have argued, is true of everything we might consider. He set himself to reward viewers of his work in proportion to the discrimination they brought to bear upon it. Sadly the approbation of informed viewing was bestowed most commonly by fellow artists and comparatively little by the buying public.

Next instalment: Cotman’s 1813 etching of St Benet’s

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