Plate 3, Duncombe Park, Yorkshire

This is the sixth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings, published in 1811. Here, plate 3 takes us to the ground of the magnificent Baroque palace of Duncombe Park in Yorkshire. Cotman manages to find a corner of it that could be anywhere.

Duncombe 1000px
John Sell Cotman
Duncombe Park, Yorkshire, 1810
Private collection
Photograph: Professor David Hill

This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright landscape subject featuring a sandy bank eroding left into a small river or stream. The bank is surmounted by a stone wall extending from the right about half way up the composition and terming towards the centre with a short length of rickety wicket fence. On the bank to the left is the stump of a felled tree with gnarled roots exposed where the sand has been washed out from between them. The top half of the composition beyond the wall and fence is filled with tall trees in full leaf.

Duncombe inscription detail

The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 19 November 1810 for his first series of ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’. This was issued to subscribers in parts, and the present subject was published as plate 3 (of 24) of the completed set in 1811. The etching one of five smaller plates etched for the series. In order of production it was the eight of the published plates, and followed four larger plates.

Click on map to enlarge and scroll in and out:

The subject was identified by Cotman as ‘Duncombe Park, Yorkshire’ both in inscriptions and in the list of subjects that he included with the 1811 edition.

Duncombe Park photo
Duncombe Park
Photograph by Professor David Hill, 2003

Duncombe Park is at Helmsley in North Yorkshire, the home of the Duncombe family, latterly Barons Feversham, and is one of the finest Baroque houses in Yorkshire. It has magnificent terraced gardens overlooking the river Rye, complete with splendid classical temples.

Duncombe terraces photo
Duncombe Terrace
Photograph by Professor David Hill, 2003

Cotman visited Duncombe on each of his tours to Yorkshire in 1803, 1804 and 1805, though he does not appear to have sketched either the house or the temples, concentrating instead on obscure corners of the grounds such as this.

John Sell Cotman
Duncombe Park, 1805
Graphite, on a thick smooth-surfaced support, a board or card?, 206 x 131 mm, 8 1/8 x 5 1/8.
British Museum, London, BM 1902.5.14.257
Image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

The etching is based on a pencil drawing at the British Museum (BM 1902.5.14.257). The etching reverses the composition, and introduces (or at least clarifies) a waterfall or cascade to the left, and dramatically elaborates the marks throughout.

Duncombe Hall stands at the top of a steep wooded escarpment falling from the terraces to the River Rye. The river makes a swinging loop around the terraces, coursing between its flood plain and escarpment. The flat valley bottom is well-drained and sandy, and makes fine meadows for grazing sheep. It is indubitably a pleasant environment, especially in summer with the meadows thick with flowers and insects, or in the autumn with the tress on the banks variegated in colour. And a fine few hours may be enjoyed searching fruitlessly for the material of Cotman’s etching.

Duncombe Wall 2005
Wall at Duncombe
Photograph by Professor David Hill, 2005
Rye banks
Banks of the River Rye at Duncombe
Photograph by Professor David Hill, 2005

There are walls like this, and Cotman certainly has the character of the riverbanks, but there is no ensemble today that quite comes together quite as required.

GE Cotman viewpoint

It is perhaps possible to exercise some deductive reasoning. Cotman must most likely be on the left bank of the river, since it is hard to make any progress on the right, and the left is the side on which the house stands. So in the sketch we must be looking downstream. The fence and wall we may understand to serve to keep the sheep and cattle in the meadow in which we stand, and out of the woods beyond. There is one spot, immediately downstream of the house where the river runs out of the main meadow, and swings left to create a narrow gap the meadow and the woods where the gap is now closed by a fence and gate.

Etchings prospectus NYCRO 1000px
Cotman’s prospectus for his first ‘Collection of Etchings’, 1810
North Yorkshire County Record Office (NYCRO ZQG)
Scanned from Adele M Holcomb and M Ashcroft, ‘John Sell Cotman in the Cholmeley Archive’, NYCRO, 1980

This is the only non-architectural subject in ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’. It is proof that Cotman’s ideas about the series evolved as he went along. The prospectus, advertised ‘Seascapes’, but in the event, no such subject ever appeared. It seem that Cotman set out intending to represent the full range of his subject-matter, but in the event settled exclusively for architectural subjects.

GE Cotman sites near Duncombe

On his visits to Yorkshire Cotman stayed with his patrons the Cholmeley family at Brandsby Hall. Brandsby stands about ten miles north of York, and the Cholmeleys introduced Cotman to illustrious families in the county. Helmsley is less than ten miles north of Brandsby and Duncombe would have been an easy ride away.

Cholmeley prints - Duncombe Park
Early proof presented to Francis Cholmeley
Private Collection
Photograph by Professor David Hill

Cotman sent trial proofs to his friend Francis Cholmeley, for advice and encouragement, and in hope that Cholmeley would promote the project to gentlemen acquaintances and also to local booksellers. An inscribed proof of an early state survives in the collection of family descendants.

This plate was the occasion of a particularly telling pre-publication exchange between the bookseller, Todd of York, Francis Cholmeley and Cotman. Cholmeley related that Todd ‘said his subscribers did not like the view of Duncombe Park because it might have been anywhere. Two-thirds of mankind, you know, mind more what is represented than how it is done.’ Todd and Cholmeley seem not to have been quite fully aware of how distinct a part of the artist’s mission such obscurity actually was. He balanced the series with some crowd-pleasers such as Croyland, Howden and Kirkstall, but the obscure subjects such as this or the previous plate, Beeston Priory, let alone South Burlingham and Braiseworth, together with the obscure subject selections at familiar sites such as Rievaulx and Kirkham are clearly a deliberate stratagem. As he says in the printed list of subjects in the 1811 edition, the order is intended to show his intentions. The five smaller plates are the first five in the published order, and each seems to present a vignette meditation on, or even a manifesto of, his adopted artistic positions and values.

NCM drawing
John Sell Cotman
Duncombe Park, Yorkshire,
Graphite on paper, 222 x 146 mm
Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1951.235.463
Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums Collections

A graphite drawing made for Cotman’s teaching portfolios survives at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1951.235.463 : F). It follows the etching, but varies in detail, and in close focus is everywhere less sensitive or intelligent. Cotman made many such drawings for his students to copy. He made a first series in 1809, and added to it at various times, especially in the early 1820s and again in the later 1830s. These drawings are a notoriously difficult area in Cotman studies, for in the 1830s he was assisted in making these by various family members, especially his sons Miles Edmund and John Joseph. So there are serious issues enough in determining what work might be autograph, and what by the sons, but there is also the additional complication that all the compositions are likely to have been copied by pupils, and sometimes with considerable ability. The Norwich drawing, however, is finely rendered, and would count as a creditable performance, even if by one of the sons.

Duncombe tailpiece

Summary of known states:

Engraver’s proof

Line etching, image size [irregular] 210 x 137 mm on plate 217 x 145 mm, printed in black ink on full sheet of heavyweight, soft, wove paper

As sent to Francis Cholmeley inscribed by the artist: ‘A View in Duncombe Park an Unfinished Plate’, presented to Francis Cholmeley and now in the possession of a descendant. Another print of the same state is at the British Museum, 1902.5.14.257, mounted with the graphite drawing.

First published state

As editioned for subscribers rather more fully developed tonally so the inscription lower right obscured. Adds initials ‘JSC’ lower left. Cf Tate T06448. And as issued by Cotman in volume form, 1811, printed in black ink on heavyweight, soft, wove paper 475 x 340 mm with pencil title by the artist, cf eg NWHCM : FAP5 : F, NWHCM : 1956.254.5 : F

Second published state

As editioned by H G Bohn in ‘Specimens of Architectural Remains in various Counties in England, but especially in Norfolk. Etched by John Sell Cotman’, 1838, for inclusion in ‘Cotman’s Liber Studiorum’, Vol.2, series V, plate 13. Perhaps more richly inked and with an etched title inscription at the bottom centre of subject ‘Duncomb Park. Yorkshire’. and numbered ‘XIII’ top right, cf eg Tate T11499, NWHCM : 1923.86.5 : F


?Exh. Norwich Society of Artists in 1811 (no.72 as ‘Trees, Duncombe Park, Yorkshire’).

Popham, 1922, no.5

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