John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm, Part #3

This is the third 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.

Lyons hanging #1

Large Lyons #1

The main room of the exhibition was devoted to framed works. We divided the display into three main sections, ‘Modernity’, ‘Shelter’ and ‘Storm’ The remainder of this part documents the first section. Other sections will follow. The individual works are given with the original text labels. Those in the actual exhibition were severely edited. Each image is also accompanied by a link to the full-length discursive entry given in the complete catalogue of the Leeds Cotmans at

The theme of ‘Modernity’ was the discovery of Cotman by progressive artists and collectors in the years between the two World Wars. The first critical biography and appreciation of Cotman was published in 1926 by Solomon Kaines-Smith, who was curator of Leeds Art Gallery at the time. We opened this section with his appraisal of Cotman’s relevance:

‘In the years following the war, down to the present day, his influence has been more marked than ever. A world tired of violence, whether of action or thought, prefers simplicity to ‘simplification,’ austerity to brutality, order to arrogance, seriousness to self-consciousness, and is even beginning to distinguish between genius and eccentricity.’
Solomon Charles Kaines Smith, Cotman, 1926, p.154

Modernity #1

Pont Aberglaslyn, North Wales, c.1806
Cotman saw this subject on his tours to North Wales of 1800 and 1802, when he was still a teenager. He was still only twenty-four when he painted this.
This is Leeds’s very first Cotman acquisition, bought in 1922.

Modernity #3

On the Greta above Devil’s Elbow, near Rokeby. Called ‘Brignall Banks on the Greta’, c.1805
This is an example of Cotman’s uniquely abstracting approach to nature as well as the radical obscurity of his subject choice.
Kitson saw this when it was in the collection of the artists Agnes and Norman Lupton. They were born in Leeds and gave their collection to the gallery in 1952.

The Ploughed Field
, c.1805
This is probably a subject in the Wolds a few miles north of York, near Brandsby Hall where Cotman stayed with his friends the Cholmeley family.
This is one of the best-known examples of Cotman’s poetry of the pastoral. None of his works have been exhibited more widely or more often.

Barnard Castle from Towler Hill, 1805
In 1805 Cotman stayed at Rokeby Hall, near Barnard Castle, and spent several weeks painting and sketching from nature.
Sydney Kitson bought this at the height of the Great Economic Slump in 1932, being sent to auction by the Worsley family of Hovingham Hall, North Yorkshire.

The Harvest Field – A Pastoral, exhibited 1810
This is one of Cotman’s most important exhibition watercolours.
It takes the same landscape as ‘Barnard Castle from Towler Hill’, exhibited nearby, but transforms it into an imaginary Arcadian idyll.
Pastoral had particular appeal in the dynamically changing world of the Industrial Revolution, and equally in the uncertain, and rapidly shifting times following World War I. It may be due a revival today.

Modernity #4

Cows standing in shallow water below the bridge at Bridgnorth, c.1806
Long known as ‘Bridge and Cows’ the subject was recently identified at Bridgnorth. The steps to the right still survive. Cotman visited Bridgnorth on his tours to Wales in 1800 and 1802.
In 1806 Cotman gave up trying to make a living in London. His approach was too austere for popular taste.
He returned to his native Norwich but he did not at all compromise the new austerity of his approach.

Lake at Trentham Park, Staffordshire, 1806
Known as ‘Entrance to a Park’, this subject has recently been identified as Trentham Park, Staffordshire the home of the Marquess of Stafford.
The Staffords were important patrons and Cotman had high hopes of an invitation to visit them in 1806. His uncompromising approach does not seem to have been appreciated.

On the River Yare, c.1809
Whilst developing his Norwich drawing school, Cotman also began to paint regularly in oils. This subject records a subject on the river Yare somewhere downstream of Norwich.
Cotman’s oil paintings are little studied. They are completely outside the norm for their times, especially if compared to the virtuosity of his contemporary, J.M.W.Turner. Cotman take reticence and quietude into altogether new territory.

A river spanned by two-arched bridge, called ‘Tan y Bwlch’, c.1825
In the mid 1820s Cotman threw himself back into painting after more than ten years of architectural etching projects.
He drew many subjects from his sketches made in Wales more than twenty years previously. But now more than ever he reduced topography to poetics of colour, application, composition and design.

To Follow: Part 4 ‘Shelter’

Part 3 key image

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