John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm: Part#2

This is the second instalment recording the recent exhibition of ‘John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm’, held at Leeds Art Gallery, 13 October 2017 to 21 January 2018.

Small lyons - visitor

One of the key features of the exhibition was the large number of Cotman’s pencil sketches that were on display.

Cotman sketches text board

Kitson left over eight hundred of these to Leeds, but only a handful have ever been exhibited. Part of the problem is their size; most are quite small, some no bigger than postage stamps. Kitson had mounted them all himself in hand-made watercolour paper mounts, and they have survived in that form to the present, boxed in specially made solander cases.

We wanted to convey the sense we had enjoyed looking at them in the security of the print room. A drawing held in the hand is a quite different and more intimate experience than one framed and fastened to a wall.

Sketch array Hondartza

We wanted to show them just as they were in Kitson’s mounts, and offer the idea of the haptic encounter, even if that can’t literally be given in an exhibition.

Sketches hanging array

We tried various solutions, but eventually hit upon the idea of placing them as it were on easel rails. As if they had just been put there, and might just as easily be picked up again.

Sketch arrays

Cumulatively Cotman’s sketches are like the pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle. As we found them in Kitson’s boxes they are sorted into rough groups; figures, ships and boats, landscapes, architecture, horses and carts, and so on. But except for a few examples there are no dates and no record of whatever might have ever have been their relationships one to another. Most of the three- year cataloguing project, the results of which are now published in, had been to begin to try and work out subjects, dates and relationships. We hope we have laid down some good foundations.

2017 exhibition sketches #2 ss

One particularly interesting aspect of the exhibition was the contribution of contemporary artist Hondartza Fraga. She worked behind the scenes with the curator, archivist, volunteers, technicians and myself, and produced an extensive body of work as a result.

Hondartza catalogue SS

Her work can be studied more extensively at her website:

and the Cotman work is archived at

In the sketches section of the exhibition she made two animations. In one she took a sketch of willow fronds and brought it to life with a gentle breeze, and in another she too a drawing of a sailing ship and its tender in harbour, and made them ebb back and forth as if on a breathing tide.

Hondartza animation tree

Hondartza animation boat

The animations played on two ipads, mounted behind watercolour paper mats of the same size and tone as the drawings. The screens were a similar tone to the drawings, and took most visitors completely by surprise. All of a sudden, the sketch that they were looking at was moving. The effect was subtle and understated like Cotman’s work more generally, and the result (once recognised) equally intriguing and beguiling.

Hondartza placing animation

NEXT: Section by section guide to main exhibition.

Sketches close up key image

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