John Sell Cotman: A Harbour for the Soul #4

This is the fourth in a series of articles that began with a rediscovered watercolour of ‘The Student’ by John Sell Cotman. That led to an exploration of 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 we consider 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

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