Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This is the fifth instalment of the recent exhibition of ‘John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm’, held at Leeds Art Gallery, 13 October 2017 to 21 January 2018. Here, we explore some of the archival material displayed, and some of the responses made by the contemporary artist, Hondartza Fraga.
The core of the Cotman archive at Leeds is the set of twelve research notebooks compiled by Sydney Kitson. He began the first in 1926 and left the last unfinished at his death in 1937. He titled them ‘Cotmania’ in a jocular reference to his immersion in study of the artist, and they were all bound a uniform blue, presumably with a view to their incorporation into his legacy. They served as the record and diary of his quest to see (and sometimes buy) every Cotman that he could, and as the basis of his definitive ‘Life of John Sell Cotman’ published by Faber and Faber just one month before his death. The final incomplete notebook is red, being left unincorporated into the main series.
The contemporary artist Hondartza Fraga immersed herself in the archive and Cotman’s work at Leeds and produced a series of works in response. Among the key pieces was a series of watercolours made in response to the notebooks. Kitson and the other collectors of Cotman in the 1920s and 1930s often made reference to Cotman’s blue. Kitson bound his notebooks in this colour and his published book was issued in a blue binding. Hondartza made a series exploring the aesthetic properties of blue watercolour, and a specific group devoted to the ‘Cotmania’ notebooks. These were exhibited as an ensemble in the exhibition.
In 2015, not long after our research project began, a major Cotman watercolour of ‘Greta Woods’ came up for sale at Christie’s in London (7 July 2015, lot 101) and with the support of the Art Fund, Leeds Art Fund and The Patricia Hurst Fund, the gallery was able to buy it.
‘Shelter from the Storm’ was the first time that the gallery was able to show it to the public, having been closed for two years for repairs and renovation. After the excitement of the acquisition, this was a frustration, especially for me since it was an important subject to my previous researches on Cotman for ‘Cotman in the North in 2005’. At that time I failed to discover the exact location of the subject for myself, but was directed to the spot by an email from Mrs Frances Bennett on 11 December 2007.
I wrote in the commentary: ‘The relationship to the site is so close as to seem uncanny, sufficiently to raise the question as to whether the watercolour might have been painted direct from nature. Leeds has a similarly-sized example in ‘The Shady Pool’ which is certainly so, and although the complications of the relieved lights of the foliage against the darker background are greater in the present example, there seems no reason that Cotman could not have completed this direct from nature. It is a sheltered spot and but a short walk from the house in which he was staying: He could have set up a stool and drawing frame quite easily, and stayed long enough at the house for there have been quite sufficient time to bring this to a careful state of completion, even working on it over successive days. Given social distractions of bathing in the river, leching after the ladies, and letting his dog get up to mischief (see Hill 2005, p.103 ff] this might well account for the fact that he seems to have done little else whilst actually staying at the house’.
‘Greta Woods’ was one of Cotman’s most celebrated subjects in the early 1920s. It was exhibited at the Tate in 1922 and was one of the first Cotman watercolours to be reproduced in colour when it was published in Paul Oppe’s book on Cotman in 1923. Sydney Kitson was inspired to try to discover the spot and his ‘Cotmania’ notebook for 1928-9 (Volume 3) records that he made a Cotman tour of the north of England and on ‘2 October 1928; ‘Went to Greta Bridge, wandered along the river to the junction of Tees & Greta. The little bridge spanning a [?fushet] (now dry) in Lewis Fry’s drawing is still there.
The watercolour has ever since been one of Cotman’s best-loved and most frequently exhibited watercolours. Hondartza became fascinated by the large number of labels and stickers on the back recording its history and its travels, and made a watercolour directly in response. Appropriately the watercolours have since been acquired by Leeds Art Gallery, and can remain in permanent dialogue with their sources.
TO FOLLOW: Part 6,’Storm’