Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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