John Sell Cotman: A Harbour for the Soul – Postscript

This is a postscript to a three-part article presenting a recently rediscovered watercolour of ‘The Student’ by John Sell Cotman. In that I explored the ways in which that composition and various re-iterations reflected the ambitions of Cotman’s artistic life in Norwich, and its Rembrandtian collapse. Here I present a related composition, ‘The Ecclesiatic’ the original drawing of which resurfaced in an auction whilst I was in the process of writing the original article.

Ecclesiastic drawing DH SS
John Sell Cotman
A priest seated at a table reading a bible on a stand. Called ‘An Ecclesiastic’, c.1832-33
Graphite (or conte crayon) on white wove ?etching paper, watermarked ‘J Whatman/ 1831’, image within ruled graphite line 205 x 154 mm, on sheet 234 x 185 mm
Collection of the author

The subject is a middle-aged man in priest’s robes, seated by a window left, where there is a large crucifix, looking right to read in a large book, on a lectern, evidently a Bible to judge from the bookmark embroidered with a cross. His right hand reaches across his body to turn the page, whilst his left cradles his chin in thought. The image is inscribed JSC in monogram in the bottom right hand corner.

The drawing is the basis of an etching made by Cotman in 1833, but first published by Charles Muskett of Norwich in an edition of Eight Etchings by John Sell Cotman, now first published, in 1846. Kitson, Life, 1937, pp.300-1 relates that ‘According to a note by Dawson Turner in his copy.. these plates were executed in 1833.’ Cotman used the series to explore a series of subjects typical of Dutch Masters of the seventeenth century. The present plate is particularly Rembrandtian in its concept and execution.

Eccesiastic etching SS

John Sell Cotman
A priest seated at a table reading a bible on a stand. Called ‘An Ecclesiastic’, 1833
Etching on india paper pressed on stiff, heavyweight etching paper, image 197 x 145 mm on plate 204 x 151 mm: Full sheet as published, 492 x 336 mm
Inscribed on plate in bottom right corner of image ‘JSC’ in monogram.
Leeds Art Gallery, bequest of Sydney Decimus Kitson, LEEAG.1949.0009.0774
This etching is listed on the online catalogue of the Leeds Art Gallery collection of John Sell Cotman, but funding for the project extended only to fully cataloguing the drawings. I am hoping to be able to work on the prints at some future opportunity.

The 1846 edition was printed to the most exacting standards as proof impressions on an extremely fine india paper, cut just slightly larger than the image but within the plate margin, and pressed into a large sheet of heavyweight, stiff, etching paper. Registration of the india paper must have been absolutely critical, and the impressions are testimony to the heyday of intaglio printing, just at the point where it was being superseded by new processes such as lithography and photography.

The mount of the Leeds impression is inscribed in graphite by an unknown hand ‘The Spanish Student’, and that is the title by which it is described in the Leeds Concise Catalogue of 1976 et seq. There appears to be some confusion here, for Kitson also used that title in relation to the subject of another plate in the series – of ‘A Scholar in his Study’, and of a drawing for that subject in the Leeds collection (LEEAG.1949.0009.0609). Kitson Life 1937 p.301 describes the present subject as ‘an ecclesiast in his study’ which is clearly more appropriate.

Ecclesiat detail monogram

The monogram is an interesting feature. His use of this device is occasional – it occurs for example in etchings of ‘The West Front of Castle Acre Priory’, ‘Doorway of Wroxham Church’ and ‘The Bishop’s Palace Gate, Norwich’, made by Cotman 1813, c.1812 and 1814 for his Norfolk Antiquities series. But is also occurs in work from the 1830s, for example a watercolour of the ‘Interior of the Chancel of Walsoken Church, Norfolk’, dated 1830 and sold Christie’s 29 March 1983, no.128. No systematic collation has ever been attempted, but in any case there seems to be no pattern or consistency, other than the suggestion that he entertained (at least from time to time) the ambition of establishing a marque for his work.

It is probably also worth remarking on the overt religiosity of the present subject. The subject in this composition is wearing a biretta. This takes many forms today, but historically is academic dress for those holding a doctorate from a pontifical university, or someone more generally with an academic religious training. This is an underexplored area of Cotman’s life and work. There are quite sufficient subjects in his oeuvre to suggest a significant interest in religious devotion. The subject of ‘’Velazquez designing his celebrated picture of the Crucifixion’ discussed in the last part is one such but others include a pair of oil paintings of ‘A Monk’ and ‘A Priest’ at Norwich Castle Museum. These all date from the 1830s and I have been tempted to wonder whether this might somehow be related to the passing of Catholic emancipation in the UK in 1829?

The main body of this article, however has explored the significance of these subjects in terms of Cotman’s situation in Norwich in the later 1820s and early 1830s. The etching of the present subject was made as part of the same series as that of ‘The Student discussed in the previous parts.

Many of the etchings in this series are Rembrandtian in character, and Kitson observes that the etching of this subject is one of the finest. Both subjects have the idea of scholarship taking place in a secure haven of contemplation, and rich in resources; missals, globes, stands and books. Both represent a nostalgic fantasy of a more civilized age and an indictment of the present times. From late 1823 Cotman tried to maintain his desired world in a large house on Bishop’s Plain in Norwich, and stocked it with books, art, armour, antiques and fabrics, and the whole lumber of the London and Norfolk salerooms. Sadly it became rapidly apparent that all this was truly beyond his means. He suffered from recurrent bouts of anxiety, paranoia and depression until it all was perforce dispersed in a sale in 1834. But artists must have such stuff in their lives; they must feed their imaginations; it is a compunction and necessity. In paying homage in these etchings to Rembrandt, Cotman must have been well aware that Rembrandt’s own imaginative sphere had famously imploded in his later years, and that, in the face of bankruptcy in 18657, he was forced to sell off his house and all its contents. Rembrandt’s story still provokes wonder at the philistinism of a world that could have allowed that. There must have been much there to feed Cotman’s sense of empathy.

There might be some more specific allusion to those circumstances in the subject of ‘The Ecclesiast’. It does not seem to have been previously noted that the subject is an iconographic echo of a long tradition of depictions of St Jerome in his study.

St Jerome came to be the patron saint of archaeologists, Biblical scholars, librarians, students and translators. He is principally known for his library of pagan and classical texts, holding onto it tenaciously and retiring from Rome to Bethlehem to devote himself to translating the Bible into Latin. His library was destroyed in 415 when Bethlehem was attacked by bandits. For such a bibliophile as Cotman, fearing raids from philistines all around, this must have seemed an especially prescient choice of subject when he was forced to consign his own library to the hammer in 1834.

In the discussion of the composition of ‘The Student’ in Part 3 I made the suggestion that the figure in that case was derived from a portrait drawing by John Sell Cotman of his son Miles Edmund.

by Horatio Beevor Love, pencil and wash, 1830
Portrait of John Sell Cotman by Horatio Beevor Love
Graphite and watercolour wash, 10 3/4 x 8 1/4 in, 273 x 210 mm
London, National Portrait Gallery, NPG1372
Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery;

Here, I might suggest that the figure of the ecclesiast is a self-portrait. In 1830 the artist Horatio Beevor Love painted Cotman in his study. Although there are significant differences in the details, the set of the head, body and shoulders is very alike, and in closer detail, the angle and silhouette of the head and shoulders is identical, and apart from an alteration in the angle of gaze, so is the structure and treatment of the eyes and nose.

David Hill, January 2018


John Sell Cotman: A Harbour for the Soul #3

This is the third instalment of an article presenting a recently rediscovered watercolour of ‘The Student’ by John Sell Cotman. Part 1 described the discovery and identification of the subject. Part 2 explored some of the related works discovered during my research into the Leeds Art Gallery collection of Cotman drawings. Here I examine some further related subjects, and consider the way in which the compositions were intended to reflect the ambitions of Cotman’s artistic life in Norwich, and its Rembrandtian collapse.

Between 1811 and 1823 Cotman lived in a modest house overlooking the river from Southtown at Great Yarmouth. There he spent a decade producing more than 600 etchings of architectural and antiquarian subjects, mostly in Norfolk and Normandy. He fathered a family of five children, and although never so successful as he deserved to be, worked diligently, mostly (with one or two illnesses and misfortunes) happily, relatively simply and securely, and many of the etchings and related drawings from this period can be counted amongst his finest achievements.

Cotman house Yarmouth-PP
Cotman’s House at Southtown, Great Yarmouth.
Photograph by David Hill, September 2003
Cotman lived here from 1811 to 1823. Commanding views of the river to the front, and over meadows towards Norwich at the back, these were some of his most secure years.
Cotman's house at Southtown
Google Earth Aerial View of Southtown and Great Yarmouth, marking Cotman’s House.
Please note the house is a private dwelling. Please respect the occupants’ privacy.

He was conscious, however, of rather neglecting his ambitions to become an artist of repute and proper station. So in 1823 he made plans to move back to Norwich, and to install himself in the kind of house that a grand artist might deserve, and in a situation in St Martin’s-at-Palace Plain, right opposite the gateway to the Bishop’s Palace, at the heart of power and status in the city.

Cotman's House, Norwich pp
Cotman’s house in St Martin’s-at-Palace Plain, Norwich
Photograph by David Hill, taken 7 April 2005, 14.54
This is one of the best-situated dwellings in the centre of Norwich. Cotman lived here for ten years, 1824-1834, but never could properly afford it.
GE Cotman house in Norwich
Google Earth Aerial View of central Norwich, marking Cotman’s House.

His Yarmouth patron, the banker Dawson Turner, counselled him against the move. The house was too big and expensive, the lifestyle he fancied unaffordable, and his hopes for success grossly overoptimistic. But artistic ambition never rested on rational foundations and Cotman entered into his new estate with complete abandon. He filled the house with expensive books, missals, paintings, sculptures, hundreds if not thousands of artists’ prints, curios, fabric, costumes and suits of armour. His role models were Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt. Though as Dawson Turner well knew, Norwich was somewhat bereft of major European Princes and Dukes and well past its peak as a thrumming mercantile economy.

Within a year or two he was beset by financial worries. Kitson tells the story vividly in his Life of Cotman (1937). His chapter 20 is titled ‘Penury and Despair, 1925-26’. He  tried to get a job with the Navy teaching technical drawing at Chatham. The navy board to its credit had no difficulty seeing his unsuitability. He gave notice to his landlord to quit the large house in Norwich. In extremis he thought even of moving to Derby. The notice to quit was rejected, however, the alternatives fizzled away, and eventually the storm passed and he regained some equilibrium.

In the years that followed he lurched between elation – usually provoked by some hint of encouragement or esteem – and despair – usually occasioned by the completion of some new artistic initiative and its failing to garner the recognition that it deserved. He could not help but feel that his artistic sensibility and ambition was out of its time. The world had no interest in the kind of artist he aspired to be. The Student and related works are part of considerable body of Romantic musings into which he projected his ideas of what a cultured and artistic life should be. It is the very image of what it ought to have been to contentedly create in the kind of environment that he created in the house at Norwich.

Scholar etching cropped SS

The etching of The Student seems designed to have been a clear homage to the etchings of Rembrandt. Like Cotman Rembrandt had overstretched himself financially in a house that he could not afford, filled it with a warehouse of treasures and art, and then saw it all crumble around him and be carted away in the auctioneer’s carts. So in 1834 the contents of Cotman house of art on the St Martin’s-at-Palace Plain were put under the hammer by Spelman’s auctioneers.

1834 sale cover
Title page of the sale of the contents of Cotman’s House in Norwich, 1834
From a volume of typed transcripts of sale catalogues in the Sydney Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery
Photograph by David Hill

Kitson’s archive of Cotman material at Leeds Art Gallery contains a typed transcript of the catalogue. It makes fascinating and galling reading. The sale lasted three days, 10, 11 and 12 of September 1834. On the first day 259 lots were offered of individual engravings, etchings and drawings, engravings and etchings mounted and bound in volumes, books, books of prints, illustrated books, carvings and plaster casts. On the second day 267 lots of individual engravings and woodcuts, engravings and etchings mounted and bound in volumes, books of prints, illustrated books, more books and picture frames. On the third day 265 lots of engravings and etchings, prints, framed and glazed, paintings, ancient armour, miscellaneous curiosities, models of vessels, furniture and plated goods. There were hundreds if not thousands of etchings and engravings: Many of the lots were of thirty or forty items and many by old masters, as well as by well-known contemporaries. Among the books were dozens of valuable folio editions and expensive illustrated editions. The whole sale fetched £569.6.0. It was probably a fraction of what it was worth, and an even greater fraction of what he had paid.

1834 sale cat Rembrandt
Detail of the sale of the contents of Cotman’s House in Norwich, 1834, day 2
From a volume of typed transcripts of sale catalogues in the Sydney Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery
Photograph by David Hill

About half-way through the second day was a succession of six lots of Rembrandt etchings. Almost any one of those might fetch today several thousand pounds. Fine examples with the use of the burin, sometimes tens of thousands. We can only imagine what was the quality of these, but Cotman must have been one of the very best judges of quality, being one of the most practiced artist etchers of his generation.

1834 sale cat armour and curios
Detail of the sale of the contents of Cotman’s House in Norwich, 1834, day 3 amour and curiosities
From a volume of typed transcripts of sale catalogues in the Sydney Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery
Photograph by David Hill

On day three appeared a succession of armour and ancient arms, and a miscellany of curiosities. It must have felt as if the very stuff of his imagination had been bled, and then callously flushed away.

The variations of his theme of the figure of a scholar culminated in a subject picture exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society in London in 1836 as no.194, ‘Velazquez designing his celebrated picture of the Crucifixion’. This subsequently lost its original title and was exhibited at the Norwich Fine Art Circle exhibition of 1888 as no.174 ‘Columbus: Figure writing in left centre in front of a large crucifix, at the foot of which are globes and scrolls lying on chest. Figure on right drawing aside a curtain. 16 7/8 x 13 3/8 ins. Signed ‘J S Cotman, 1836’, This was lent to the exhibition by Cotman’s one-time pupil and late friend and patron the Rev J R Bulwer, and illustrated in the catalogue in a lithograph drawn by Miss A B Woodward.

John Sell Cotman
Velazquez designing his celebrated picture of the Crucifixion, 1836
Watercolour, 16 7/8 x 13 3/8 ins
Reproduced from a lithograph in the catalogue of the exhibition of the Norwich Art Circle, 1888, where exhibited as no. 174 ‘Columbus’. It is not known how or when it acquired the later title.

From the illustration is it plain that it answers perfectly to the 1836 title. The picture descended in the Bulwer family until at least the late 1920s. Kitson’s ‘Cotmania’ notebook volume 2 for 1927-8 records that on 1 May 1828: ‘Visited the Misses Bulwer at Dalling near Uckfield in Sussex. Saw their Cotman drawings’. Number six in his list of eleven Cotmans is ‘Columbus and the Crucifix. watercolour. 17 x 13¼ – ‘J.S. Cotman – 1836’ Exhibited Norwich 1888 (No. 174) lithograph illustration’. What became of it thereafter is unknown.

The composition appears to be the last iteration of the figure of the gentleman scholar/artist in the sequence. Quite how his attentions had transferred to Velazquez is unclear, but the subject must have seemed the very epitome of the artist employed in the grandest of projects and deemed essential at the very heart of society. He might very well have meant to pose the question of the place of the artist in contemporary Britain.

John Sell Cotman
An artist in his studio, c.1832
Watercolour, 17 x 24 ins, 432 x 610 mm
London, Victoria and Albert Museum (P.27-1939)
Reproduced from Sydney Kitson’s book, Life of John Sell Cotman, 1937, pl.123 where called ‘The Investigation’. Possibly, rather, identifiable with the exhibit ‘A Painter’s Study’ shown at the Society of Painters in Watercolours, 1833, no.249

One of Cotman’s most important essays in imaginative haven is a fine studio watercolour that was once owned by Sydney Kitson, but was allocated after his death to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (P.27-1939). In the copy of his 1937 typescript catalogue at Leeds Art Gallery (where no.11) Kitson identified this with a work exhibited at the Norfolk and Suffolk Institution, Norwich, 1828 no. 155 as ‘The Investigation’, but there is nothing in the composition to answer to such a subject. Rather, I would propose, that title belongs to a watercolour reproduced in Victor Rienaecker’s 1953 book on Cotman, pl.93 as ‘The Investigation. Clearly, Cotman’s subject pictures of the later 1820s and 1830 have suffered from a lack of attention, for that example, amongst many others, appears to be untraced today.

John Sell Cotman
?The Investigation, exhibited 1828
Watercolour, 19 3/4 x 14 3/4 ins, 501 x 375 mm
Reproduced from Victor Rienaecker’s 1953 book on Cotman, pl.93 as ‘The Investigation’. Probably identifiable with the exhibit ‘The Investigation’ Norfolk and Suffolk Institution, Norwich, 1828 no. 155.

The probable misidentification of the title notwithstanding, Kitson does devote quite a lot of attention to the picture, and not surprisingly, for it was one of the first major examples of Cotman’s work that he bought. He writes in the Life, 1937, pp. 277-8 ‘It was done, seemingly, rather to gratify the artist’s vanity than to attract a prospective customer.. In the centre of the picture is a figure, a self-portrait of Cotman, dressed in a sixteenth century costume and seated at a table, bending over a great ledger. His delicate and idealised features are seen in profile. His eldest son, Miles Edmund, dressed in a light blue habit, and his youngest son, Alfred, in a yellow overall, stand at his side and hold a great roll of damask, the particulars of which the central figure is entering in the inventory spread before him. Coats of armour, shields and pikes are scattered around the room; and through the latticed window, where the Cotman coat of arms is emblazoned, a glimpse is obtained of a wooded park beyond. There is a stiff and ingenuous look about this strange piece of self –portraiture, yet it glows with colour round the mass of rose madder in the garments of the central figure. When Dawson Turner saw the drawing.. it is likely enough that he shook his head, and sized it up as still another unsaleable production of his poor vain friend, who had so defiantly refused to part with his big house and his uneconomic fancies.’

Kitson’s identification of the figures falls down on several counts. Firstly the principal figure is far too young to be Cotman aged fifty, and the main figure at the left looks to be certainly female. What, however if the identities are shifted about a little? The principal figure is a young man in his later teens or early twenties, the young woman is a little younger, perhaps in her mid-teens, and the small boy is eight or nine. They could easily be, therefore, Miles Edmund born in 1810 and eighteen in 1828, his sister Ann, born 1812 and so sixteen, and their youngest brother, Alfred born 1819 so a boy of nine. Kitson clearly thought that the delicate idealised features resembled Cotman, but the account requires reconsideration if they might be taken to be those of Miles Edmund.

John Sell Cotman
Portrait of Miles Edmund Cotman, c.1831
Black chalk, heightened with white, touched with red chalk, on grey paper, 190 x 140 mm
London, British Museum, 1885,1010.4
This drawing has hitherto been called Portrait of John Sell Cotman, but the subject if John Sell is too young ever to have been drawn by Miles Edmund. Rather it is a fine portrait by John Sell, about the time of his twenty-first birthday in 1831.

In this context it is worth proposing that a portrait drawing at the British Museum (1885,1010.4) usually said to be a portrait of John Sell by Miles Edmund, has all the same temporal issues. The portrait is of far too young a man to be John Sell approaching fifty, as he would be to have been of an age to be the subject of such a mature drawing if by Miles Edmund. Rather it is surely a portrait of Miles Edmund by his father, and this profile seems plainly reiterated in the whole series of scholar subjects related to the present drawing. That would add a double pathos to the whole series. Not only is Cotman projecting his hopes, ideals and dreams of an artistic way of life into these subjects, but he is projecting also his hopes and fears for his son and his siblings. Truly he wished to build for them a haven for their imaginations and to build around them a harbour for their souls.

David Hill, January 2018

John Sell Cotman: A Harbour for the Soul #2

This is the second instalment of an article presenting a recently rediscovered watercolour of ‘The Student’ by John Sell Cotman. Part 1 described the discovery and identification of the subject, and here I explore some of the related works identified during my research into the Leeds Art Gallery collection of Cotman drawings.

The watercolour is related to an etching. This was published posthumously by the Norwich publisher Charles Muskett in 1846 in an edition of ‘Eight Original Etchings by the late John Sell Cotman’. Leeds has two copies of the print (LEEAG.1949.0009.0775 and LEEAG.1945.0018.0027). Sydney Kitson’s, Life of John Sell Cotman, 1937, pp.130-1 records that a copy of this edition from the collection of Cotman’s Yarmouth patron Dawson Turner, was annotated to the effect that all the etchings in the series were made in 1833. Although both watercolour and etching show the same subject, the etching is an independent restatement of the subject, more or less varying the detail throughout, and introducing a female figure at the right.

The subject is a Scholar in his Study; a youngish man, dressed in sixteenth or seventeenth century costume, with long hair or a wig, seated at a table reading a large volume opened against a globe, with a large folio and scrolls in the foreground, resting on a chest, with a screen behind. It is one of a series of subjects from the 1830s in which Cotman explored scholarly immersion in books and art and antiques. The subject is a study in genteel grace in the presence, possession and production of cultural materials. It is plainly self-reflexive, and the very epitome of a condition that Cotman strove to attain for himself and his family, as a haven in an increasingly philistine world.

It was a pleasant discovery, therefore to realise that the Leeds collection contains Cotman’s original pencil sketch for the etching.

Scholar leeds sketch SS

This is a confidently-drawn and sensitive, but now rather faint, graphite study for a composition of a Romantic, historical, interior. There is a finely-dressed scholar in the left foreground seated facing right at a large table, reading in a large book on a stand and writing with a stylus in his right hand. Before him on the table are two globes in stands, and besides him a wooden chest on which are laid several large old scrolls, and against which is an open illuminated manuscript. Directly beyond him is a folding screen and behind a plinth on which stands an object, possibly a sculpture, covered in drapes. A finely-dressed female figure, in what appears to be sixteenth-century costume, with a large-collared coat and an elaborate quilted hat, stands to the right, looking around the screen as if she has just entered the room. The subject is surrounded by a fine, ruled framing line.

Kitson’s 1937 catalogue of his collection, now part of the Cotman archive at Leeds Art Gallery, identifies this as a sketch for the etching by Cotman that Kitson calls ‘The Spanish Student’. The published etchings do not appear to have had a printed list of subjects, so it is unclear on what grounds Kitson’s 1937 list gives that title. A. E. Popham in his 1922 list of Cotman’s etchings calls it no.342 as ‘(The Student)’, where the brackets indicate that the title had no firm foundation.

The composition is one of a group of subjects by Cotman from the later 1820s and 1830s in which he imagined historical subjects in a variety of manners favoured by Dutch Old Masters. Amongst these there is a particular strand in which he imagines scholars ensconced in their studies and immersed in their paraphernalia of books and art and antiques. There is clearly a self-projection of life in the Cotman house on Bishop’s Plain in Norwich, surrounded by his literary and artistic props, living out the life of the grand artist. Like Rembrandt, Cotman surrounded himself with a collection of antiques, missals, art, furniture and fabrics.

The composition of chimes with numerous compositions from the seventeenth century. Amongst those that come readily to hand are:

[click on any image to open full-size and read captions]

Besides the watercolour and etching, there is also a pencil study in a private collection. This was sold by Chorley’s Fine Art & Antiques, Cheltenham, including Jewellery and silver, Day 1: 24 September 2014, Lot 476 as ‘A Seated Cavalier, Writing’. This is a close variant with figure in the same pose, but dressed differently, wearing a large plumed hat, and drawing or writing on a large folio, with a dog seated at his feet.

Chorley's Cavalier
John Sell Cotman
A Seated Cavalier, Writing, c.1832
Graphite on paper, 190cm x 170 mm
Sold Chorley’s Fine Art & Antiques, Cheltenham, including Jewellery and silver, Day 1: 24 September 2014, Lot 476 as ‘A Seated Cavalier, Writing’, repr colour
Image from Chorley’s website:

That study informs a large and more finished pencil study in the Leeds collection, which reiterates the same figure seated at the table, a dog at his feet, but now with a crowd of onlookers behind, and a priest and finely dressed gentleman to the right (LEEAG.1949.0009.0681.

Leeds artist receiving visitors
John Sell Cotman
Figure composition: An artist receiving visitors in his studio, c.1833
Graphite on white, textured, wove paper, watermarked ‘B E & S 1828’, 257 x 347 mm
Leeds City Art Gallery, Sydney Kitson Bequest, LEEAG. 1949.0009.0681
Image courtesy of Leeds Art Gallery
To see this image in the Leeds online catalogue, click on the following link, and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:

This is a firmly-drawn graphite study of an historical figure subject. It depicts the interior of a large room with a finely-dressed scholar in the left foreground, facing right seated at a table reading writing (or drawing) in a large book with a stylus in his right hand. Behind him, four figures watch on whilst a greyhound sits by a folio at his feet. To the right stand two figures; the first a monk or ecclesiastic (perhaps an academic) in long gown and hood, carrying a thick book in his right hand; the second a gentleman cavalier, evidently entering the room to visit, with riding boots and sword and holding a plumed hat in his right hand. The drawing is inscribed by Cotman in graphite lower left ‘Cotman’, and illegibly top left and along upper edge. Inscribed on verso in graphite by unknown hand: ‘J S Cotman/ bought at his sale/ by [?]Tyrell/ of Beccles’.

This composition is a direct development of the figure study sold at Chorley’s. Here we appear to have a gentleman come to visit. It is significant that the visitor is dressed in the same manner as the artist. This would imply that the artist is of the same social status as the gentleman. We may further infer that the artist is a man of property and possessions, is receiving visits at his home where he is the centre of attention, and his work is of such importance that he is justified in concentrating on it, and may chose when to break off to acknowledge his visitor’s presence. The presence of the robed figure is interesting. He stands by as if he was already on the premises when the gentleman arrived. So the artist is receiving audience from church and state, and has the respect of both. It is not hard to see a good deal of wilful self-projection here, and perhaps something of a lecture to his erstwhile patrons and associates. The subject might almost be Rubens receiving the Duke of Alba and the Bishop of Antwerp if such a visitation ever occurred. Either way, in Cotman’s mind it was certainly a design for the way things ought to have been for an artist in Norwich.

It is worth noting that the artist makes a ghostly appearance at the centre of the composition, as if Cotman’s first idea on this sheet was to place his principal figure there. Moreover it does appear from their linear quality that both the figures on the right have been first traced onto the sheet. Further investigation might reveal further parallels and networks of sources that come together in this composition. Furthermore it certainly seems likely that this relatively large composition was made as the basis of a finished work. Whether that might have been a large watercolour or perhaps even an oil painting is not clear, but Cotman did exhibit with the Old Watercolour Society, London, 1833, no.249 a subject entitled ‘A Painter’s Study’, which is otherwise untraced.


Scholar etching cropped SS

John Sell Cotman: A Harbour for the Soul #1

This is the first instalment of an article presenting a recently rediscovered watercolour by John Sell Cotman. This appeared at auction on 9 December 2014 where it was catalogued as ‘Circle of John Sell Cotman’ and sold under the title of ‘The Student’.

Scholar as bt image only SS
John Sell Cotman
‘The Student’, c.1833
Graphite and watercolour on lightweight, white, wove, paper, 9 1/2 x 7 3/8 ins, 240 x 185 mm
Collection of the author
Photograph taken by David Hill

At the time of the sale I was just beginning work on the new, recently-published catalogue of the collection of John Sell Cotman at Leeds Art Gallery (see and I recognised a relationship with an etching that I had seen in the Leeds collection.

Scolar etching SS
John Sell Cotman
The Student, 1833
Etching, printed on lightweight india paper bonded to light card, 196 x 176 mm, on plate 206 x 183 mm, on sheet as published, 492 x 336 mm
Collection the author
Photograph by David Hill

My hunch was that the watercolour might be by one of Cotman’s pupils, or perhaps even by one of his sons. Either way, it seemed like an attractive connection with a known Cotman subject, and as substantive a connection as might ever fall within my limited personal budget. So I was especially delighted to buy it. Little, however, could I have imagined what was to fall into place around it as the Leeds research unfolded.

To be honest, I bid for it unseen, and without any great expectation of succeeding. So my first sight was on unpacking it after delivery. It was framed in a dusty gilt frame under glass, and mounted in a brown, stained mat. Even through the fogged glass, one could see that this was a bold piece of colouring.

[photo of picture in frame]

Scholar as bought SS
John Sell Cotman
‘The Student’, c.1833
As bought, 2014

Turning it over, there was a wooden backboard with an old label stuck to it. The paper was covered with a piece of polythene sealed with sellotape, but even so one could see written on in in an old ink script: ‘The Student/ J.S.Cotman’. The backboard had been sealed with brown paper tape, but beneath that was edged all around with the residue of a green/blue tape. There was no sign of blue tape on the frame, suggesting that the latter was certainly not of the same age as the backboard. Taking the backboard off, the picture itself, painted on thin paper with neat cut edges, was stuck down on a card support which was inscribed on the verso in pencil, ‘No.22’. The colour out of the frame was a bit of a revelation, with its swathe of scarlet across the foreground, bright green jacket of the figure, brilliant yellow of the screen and papers, broad blue and black of the background, deft details of pink and blue for the face and jacket. The immediate impression was of bravura and confidence, bold colour and delicate touch. Rather more impressive than I had been expecting!

[Click on any image to open full-size in gallery, and to read captions]

So what might the number signify? Potentially a sale or exhibition number, but decidedly a quest for a needle in a haystack quest. Sometime before I had bought a copy of the catalogue of the ’Exhibition of Drawings by John Sell Cotman’ held at the Norwich Arts Circle in 1888. This was the first major exhibition of Cotman to be held after his death in 1842, so that seemed a good place to start.

1888 Norwich catalogue cover_0001

Number 22 in the list reads: ‘The Philosopher in his Study: A man in green coat seated near old chest with scrolls and globes. Screen in rear. Etched by J.S.Cotman. 9 1/2 x 7 3/8 ins. [lent by] J.H.Inglis Palgrave’.

1888 Norwich catalogue no 22

The succeeding flurry of activity is a bit of a blur. But it didn’t take very long on Google to identify the owner in 1888 as Sir Robert [not ‘J’] Harry Inglis Palgrave (1827-1919. He was one of the most eminent bankers and economists of his day: The grandson of Cotman’s important patron, the Great Yarmouth banker Dawson Turner, Palgrave joined Turner’s bank at Yarmouth aged 18 and went on to be a director of Barclay’s and editor of The Economist.

His father, Sir Francis Palgrave (born Cohen 1788-1861) was equally eminent as an archivist and historian, and through his antiquarian interests made the acquaintance of Dawson Turner in 1819. In 1823 he married Turner’s eldest daughter Elizabeth, and changed his surname to Palgrave – his mother-in law’s maiden name. Elizabeth Turner had been a pupil and close associate of Cotman for over a decade by the time of her marriage, and Sir Francis had contact with Cotman up to the artist’s death. It seems most likely that he and his wife were the original collectors of the drawing. They had four sons, and three lent Cotmans to the 1888 exhibition. There might even have been some occasion for its acquisition, given that the subject represents antiquarian archival activity; for Sir Francis was knighted in 1832 for his work in public records and historical publications. In 1834 Palgrave was instrumental in Cotman securing the post of Master of Drawing at King’s College School, London.

The watercolour presided over my desk for the next three years whilst I worked my way through the 850 or so Cotman drawings in the Leeds collection. At regular intervals I came across drawings that related to the watercolour. These are discussed in the next instalment of this article. In parallel to that, I also worked on Sydney Kitson’s treasure-trove of notebooks called ‘Cotmania’ , which he gave to Leeds with his collection on his death in 1937. These are all now online in the Leeds online catalogue at

Kitson made it his business during the last fifteen years of his life to see every Cotman drawing and watercolour that he could manage in galleries, salerooms and private collections. He made a note of every one as he went along. So, a couple of years into the project, it was especially satisfying to come across a reference to this watercolour. The ‘Cotmania’ notebook VI for 1930-31 preserved in the Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery, records that he saw it on Sunday May 17 1931 when he ‘Called on Mrs Barker, 1 Hamilton Gardens, Felixstowe (granddaughter of Lady Palgrave’. She has – [lists drawings and watercolours including] (4) ‘The Astrologer’ based on the etching of seated man, but without Figure of woman coming round screen on r. green & scarlet – c.1828-30. 9 x 7 1/2.’

Cotmania VI 17 May 1931 SS
Sydney Decimus Kitson ‘Cotmania’ notebook VI, 1930-31 Page for 17 May 1931, recording his visit to see the collection of Mrs Barker of Felixstow, the daughter of R.H.Inglis Palgrave, where the present watercolour was known as ‘The Astrologer’. Leeds Art Gallery, Sydney Kitson Archive To see this page in the context of the online catalogue of the Leeds Art Gallery collection of John Sell Cotman,, click on the following link, and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:


Scholar key image

Turner at Brunnen, Lake Lucerne

2018 brings an especially Sublime sighting. On 30 January, Christie’s, New York offers a superb late Turner watercolour of ‘The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer’. This is being sold by a private American collector, and was last seen in Britain when it was sold by Christie’s in London in 1976. The sale catalogue has an extended essay by Ian Warrell (follow link in caption below) but there still seems to be even more to consider with regard to Turner’s approach to the subject, particularly in respect of his treatment of the topography.

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The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer, 1841
Watercolour with slight traces of pencil, on white, wove paper, watermarked ‘C. Ansell 1828’
9 ¾ x 12 1/8 in. (24.8 x 30.8 cm)
Christie’s, New York, 30 January 2018, lot 84, estimate: $800,000 – $1,200,000
Photo courtesy of Christie’s
To see this sketch on Christie’s online catalogue click on the link below, then press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:

The watercolour is a product of Turner’s sketching tour to Switzerland in the summer of 1841. He was sixty-five in 1840, and his appetite for the sublimities of the world became more urgent. In 1841 he embarked upon the first of four successive expeditions to the Alps, and the period of greatest intensity and brilliance in his sketching. Following the first tour he hit upon the idea of gathering a number of sketches together in a series and asking the collector and dealer Thomas Griffith to secure commissions for finished watercolours based on the sample sketches. For more extended reading on the topic area see further references at the end of this article.

The present watercolour is one of perhaps twenty sketches that Turner showed through Griffith. Ian Warrell made a collation of these in his exhibition catalogue ‘Through Switzerland with Turner’, Tate, 1995, pp. 149-50. In that list the present watercolour is no.7. One distinguishing characteristic of the late sample sketches is that they are generally numbered in red chalk on the back. It can now be noted that the present watercolour is numbered ‘18’ at the bottom right corner. The significance of the number is not altogether clear. Presumably it relates to a lost list of subjects, but the number of subjects expanded with further groups in subsequent years, and the highest number in the series appears to be ‘46’ on a sketch of ‘Lucerne by Moonlight: Sample Study’ (Turner Bequest, TB CCCLXIV 324, Tate D.36182).

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The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer, 1841
Detail of verso, bottom right-hand corner (contrast exaggerated).
The late sample sketches often have a number in red chalk on the back. This number ‘18’ has just been noticed.
It is not clear what might be the significance of the pencil number ‘0294’. ?Perhaps a collection or exhibition number.
Photograph courtesy of Christie’s

Turner remarked in a letter quoted by Warrell 1995 p.149 that he wanted to keep the sketches in their ‘primitive state’. In the event the dealer could find buyers for only nine finished watercolours, and for less than Turner thought they should fetch. The artist seems to have been quite knocked back by how tepid and limp was the response. One might say with good reason. The watercolours that he did make, including that based on the present study, ‘Lake of Lucerne from above Brunnen’ (Private Collection) are now almost universally counted among his very greatest achievements.

The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer, 1842
Watercolour on white, wove paper, 302 x 464 mm
Private Collection, UK
Photo courtesy of Agnew’s

The first series of sample sketches were mostly subjects visited in the summer of 1841. The itineraries of Turner’s Alpine tours in the 1840s still remain to be properly established, but it is clear that in this year the main focus of his attention was the Lake of Lucerne area. I hope to treat this topic more comprehensively should opportunity permit, but for now let us concentrate on the immediate subject.

Brunnen Boat 1991 SS
Steamer at Brunnen
Photograph by Professor David Hill, June 1990

I last visited Brunnen in 1990 when writing ‘Turner in the Alps’. Unfortunately the mountains were wreathed in cloud. When the old steamer came in from Fluelen the effect was Turnerian enough, but for the purposes of illustrating the mountain forms, not ideal. I hope to be able to manage a few days there this coming spring. Back in 1990, it is still more salutary to reflect, my computer had a green screen and the world wide web was still a prototype at CERN. Today, almost top of the list of a Google search for images of Brunnen one may find this stunner:

Switzerland mobility image
Lake Lucerne at Brunnen
Photo courtesy of http://www.Switzerland Mobility
To see this image in Switzerland Mobility’s own website, click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:

The small village of Brunnen – at that time still largely undeveloped and with only one decent hotel – seems to have occupied Turner as much as any other locality in 1841. This is perhaps not surprising, for it is situated on a sharp bend in the southern part of the lake, commanding the most spectacular view on the whole lake – the Bay of Uri to the south, which itself is part of a panorama that also encompasses a long stretch of the lake between mountains to the west. The bend on the lake is marked by the distinctive peak of the NiederbauenKulm, and as if this were not enough Brunnen also offers a view inland to the twin peaks of the Mythens above the village of Schwytz.

Brunnen gelaufen-hotel-goldener-adler-brunnen
Old Postcard of the Quay at Brunnen with the hotel Goldener Adler in the right foreground.
Image courtesy of:

The views of the lake were commanded from the lake-facing rooms of the inn, the Goldener Adler, right by the boat landing, and from 1838 there was a brand-new daily steamer service that connected Fluelen at the southern point of the lake, with Lucerne at the north. We have seen in a previous article how during the same tour of 1841 Turner settled himself in a lake-front hotel at Lucerne to study the effects of light on the lake on Mont Rigi, and it seems that he did much the same at Brunnen. The Goldener Adler (described as ‘best, not very good’ by Murray’s Guide to Switzerland in 1838) burned down in 1846 and was rebuilt on a grander scale, and this business continued right down to 1948, when alterations were made and it was renamed ‘The Elite’. More rebuilding followed in 1982 and in 2004 the complex was converted to apartments. The prime site, however is readily recognisable on the left corner where the Bahnhofstrasse reaches the lake and turns onto the quay. The ground floor still caters for visitors via the Restaurant Elite.

Brunnen Goldener Adler GE
Google Earth image of lakefront at Brunnen, with the site of the Goldener Adler Hotel.
Brunnen site of hotel GE
Google Earth image of the Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, looking over the site of the Goldener Adler.

Ian Warrell’s essay in the 2018 Christie’s sale catalogue explores the context and subject-matter of the watercolour. He points out that the area is rich in historical associations. For example the slopes on the opposite shore enclose the field of Rutli where the first pact of Swiss confederacy was sworn in 1291, whilst on the left shore stands a small chapel which marks the spot where, not long after the oath was sworn, William Tell famously leapt ashore to escape from the tyrant Gessler. Warrell makes the nice suggestion that a tiny spot of dark blue watercolour under the cliffs to the far left marks the position of Tell’s Chapel. In the same spirit, it might be added that the plume of smoke from the steamer appears to lead the eye to the site of the Field of Rutli.

Brunnen Tells Chapel
The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer, 1841
Detail of left centre, where a touch of dark blue marks the position of Tell’s Chapel.
Brunnen steam detail
The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer, 1841
Detail of right centre, where the plume of steam leads the eye to the field of Rutli, where the oath of Swiss confederacy was sworn.

The principal subject of the composition is the southernmost arm of the Lake of Lucerne. This is known as the Bay of Uri and is by some measure the most majestic stretch of the whole lake. The water is bounded by sheer rocky precipices, overtowered by high mountains, and takes on pellucid hues, constantly modulating according to weather and time of day. Turner sketched this stretch of the lake many times. There is a major body of work based at the southernmost tip of the Bay of Uri looking north from Fluelen, but that must await a different occasion: For the time being it is sufficient occupation to acknowledge that, including the present watercolour, there are no fewer than eight watercolour studies of the Bay of Uri from Brunnen alone.

[Click on any image to enlarge, read caption, and scroll in gallery view]

The collection above excludes two works in the Turner Bequest that are currently identified with the Bay of Uri. The first is called ‘Lake of Lucerne: The Bay of Uri from Brunnen’ (TB CCCLXIV 356, Tate D36218) but which lacks the steepness of the relief that characterises this stretch of Lake Lucerne and must, I feel sure, be somewhere else. The second is called ‘Morning on the Lake of Lucerne: Uri from Brunnen’ (TB CCCLXIV 313, Tate D36171) which has the right character, but which includes in the centre indications of a ?church and trees on the opposite shore, and must therefore I think be considered uncertain. Detailed consideration of the wider framework must await a fresh visit to the site, but for now it is worth considering the specific topography of the present work. In the Christie’s 2018 catalogue essay Ian Warrell identifies two watercolour sketches in the Turner Bequest as the basis of the present work.

‘The scene is presented in much the same way on two sheets of a roll sketchbook (the soft backed notebooks Turner favored on his later travels), but in both of those the color has been added quite sparingly over pencil outlines that were presumably made on the spot (Tate; inv. TB CCCXXXII 32 and CCCLXIV 387; the second of these includes the steamboat). Lake Lucerne from Brunnen skilfully combines the information in those sketches, tweaking the visual information to best effect, enhancing the impression of height which lengthens the reflections, though the compression of some landscape features distorts what is found in reality.’

The first of these two sketches has hitherto been identified as ‘Morning on the Lake of Lucerne’ and Warrell is obviously right to identify it more specifically as the Bay of Uri from Brunnen. His idea that the sketches were made from nature also seems plainly right. It is a curious fact that there are no pencil-only sketches that may be associated with Brunnen in the 1840s, but these two sheets have rapid on-the-spot pencil work, overlaid with sparing watercolour washes. Warrell’s idea that the two sketches were synthesised in the present composition also seems persuasive, especially given that such a synthesis would account for the left and right halves of the foreground appearing in the same composition. It might be further observed that whilst Christie’s 2018 describes the medium of the present watercolour as ‘pencil and watercolor with scratching out’, any pencil work in fact is all but invisible, and it appears to have been approached directly in watercolour. Warrell’s clear implication is that the two Turner Bequest works are sketches made on the tour of 1841, and the present watercolour a synthesis of that material made in the studio.

It may be, however, that Turner’s development of the topography remains problematic. Even before I have the opportunity to evaluate all this carefully on site, it appears that the two studies do not quite supply the material found in the present watercolour.

GE Brunnen from landing stage
Google Earth image of Lake of Uri from the Landing Stage at Brunnen.

The most obvious issue is that neither sketch provides the dramatic treatment of the left shore that appears in the present watercolour. The second is that neither offers anything like the same treatment of the mountain profiles. In fact, it is clear that whilst Turner is working with pretty much the same material – and both might have been made from a room in Goldener Adler – his emphases are quite different. In the first the left slopes are magnified in his attention, whilst in the second the cliffs of Rutli and the overimpending peak of the Niederbauenkulm (1923m) loom disproportionately large. In both sketches the snowy saddleback of the Uri-Rostock (2928m) which dominates the attention of most ordinary viewers, is dispatched with a few summary lines and no real hint of its greater height.

The second sketch does, however, move closer to the present watercolour, in that it places the Niederbauenkulm at the centre of the composition. It differs in that it gives dominant proportion to that peak, whereas here it forms part of a more continuous mountain panorama. Overall the treatment of space here seems astonishingly counter-photographic. It is, however, typical of a frequently synthetic approach that Turner adopted in his sketches from the mid-1830s onwards, even when working on the spot. I first realised to what extent when working on his 1836 sketches of Val d’Aosta subjects ‘Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta’ (2000).

From that point on (if not before) he seems to have felt completely unconstrained by conventional optical intervals, even when looking directly at his subjects. As anyone who photographs landscape will know, living perception of place is a dynamic, embodied process. The mind is concerned with the personality of things, with significant relations, with dynamic properties and associations and above all with how it feels to be there. The main point of looking out on the Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen is the fact that one looks down the southern arm of the lake to the left and the western arm to the right and that the lake pivots around the peak of the Niederbauenkulm.

When Turner toured the Alps in the 1840s, his principal source of information would have been Murray’s Guide to Switzerland published in 1838. In its account of Brunnen, the breadth of the view is the first feature to be mentioned: ‘.. the village of Brunnen – (Inn: Goldener Adler; best, not very good) – to ports of the Canton Schwytz, built at the mouth of the river Muota. Its position with reference to the surrounding scenery is one of the most fortunate on the lake, commanding a view along two of its finest reaches.’

The trend of the two sketches cited by Warrell is towards a treatment of the whole sweep, and it seems worth considering another pair of sketches that appear to embrace the same dynamic. The first (Turner Bequest CCCXLIV 354) is the only one of the studies that treats the left shore in the same way as the present watercolour, and the second (Turner Bequest CCCXLIV 385) is the only sketch that swings fully round to the right to open up the western arm of the lake. The latter also treats the Niederbauenkulm in the same proportion as the present watercolour and brings in the line of hills stretching away to the right.

It may be that the present work is not so much a synthesis of on-the-spot sketches as a culmination, and it may belong (my familiar refrain, I confess) to the place as much as any of the other sketches. He did, after all, describe the sketches collectively as being in their ‘primitive state’. The present example, though more elaborate than some of the others, is painted in a limited range of colours; two blues, an ochre and an indian red, and is no more elaborate than numerous other late watercolour sketches that originate from sketchbooks. There is nothing in it that could not have been painted in a hotel room. Furthermore, the effect of light is quite specific, setting the time of day as early morning with the light slanting in from the left, grey upon the hills, dark upon the distant lake, and independent of any of the other sketches made at the site.

tdb1626 SS
The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer, 1841
Watercolour with slight traces of pencil, on white, wove paper, watermarked ‘C. Ansell 1828’
9 ¾ x 12 1/8 in. (24.8 x 30.8 cm)
Christie’s, New York, 30 January 2018, lot 84, estimate: $800,000 – $1,200,000
Photo courtesy of Christie’s
To see this sketch on Christie’s online catalogue click on the link below, then press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:

‘Primitive state’ was a core concept for Turner. His artistic power derives, I would argue, from the constant tension in his work between analysis and synthesis, observation and imagination, and is completely reliant on the dialectic between them. Pictures such as this are certainly acts of imaginative power, but that imagination only has any meaning insofar and because of the fact that it is grounded in being in the world.

There can, however, be little doubt that the composition is synthetic. The foreground is entirely notional, there never was anything but a continuous shore front stretching as far as the mouth of the river Muota which is some way to the west (right) of the town. The treatment of the left shore is an abstraction of what Turner knows to be the case – the shore is precipitous in many places, but nowhere does it cut such a dramatically overhanging profile as is here suggested. The treatment of the Uri-Rostock is much diminished (as it is in all but one or two of the other sketches) and the mountains to the right are greatly exaggerated if not entirely invented. Yet the effect is wonderfully fresh and naturalistic. The style is certainly that of a sketch; so it is not impossible that this was done on the spot but as a deliberate transcendence of optical naturalism, in order to allow a process of assimilation to take place. So founded in observation and being there, but synthetic of the concept formed through being there. He was well-practised doing that in his on the spot pencil sketches, so why not in watercolour?

The truth is that Turner approaches the place as an artist. His objective is to find something in the subject more than can ordinary sight, or indeed an ordinary artist. And increasingly throughout his career he was doing that in on the spot observations. So my proposal is, at the end, a little paradoxical. Even when sketching from nature he actively seeks to work beyond ordinary observation. When Turner observes a place it informs him of a reality that is more of that place than simple appearances can relate.

Ian Warrell, ‘Turner’s Late Swiss Watercolours – and Oils’, in Exploring Late Turner, New York, 1999.

Ian Warrell, Through Switzerland with Turner, Tate, 1995

David Hill, Turner in the Alps, 1802, London, 1992

1976 was the year in which I took my first degree at the University of Leeds. The sale at Christie’s in which the Brunnen appeared – the last time it was seen in England – must have been one of the first in which I took an interest. That was also the year in which I decided that there was potentially a lifetime’s interest in Turner and began my doctorate at the Courtauld Institute in London. The promise of a lifetime’s interest has been more than amply delivered. Far more interest, it is salutary to reflect, than can be accommodated in merely one lifetime. This year gives me a shared perspective on Turner passing sixty-five, Seeing enough of Switzerland starts to seem quite a pressing matter.

Brunnen steam detail