This is the second article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings, published in 1811. Here we begin with the frontispiece, a cornucopia of his graphic capabilities and variety of motifs.
This is an architectural capriccio featuring a monumental stone slab carved with the legend ‘ETCHINGS/ BY/ JOHN.SELL.COTMAN’. This is set into the gable of a ruined church with a small decorated Norman arched window above and a glimpse of an ornate chancel arch beyond right. Below is a frieze of carved tiles set on an entablature inscribed ‘LONDON; PUBLISHED FOR THE AUTHOR BY MESSRS BOYDELL & CO, CHEAPSIDE/ COLNAGHI & CO, COCKSPUR ST, TODD & CO, YORK & MR WHYTE/ EDINBURGH/ 1811’ ‘The lower part of the composition comprises of a foreground mass of foliage and grassy bank. The etching is signed by the artist in the plate lower right ”Cotman inv & sc 1811’.
This is the first in the sequence of 26 etchings published together by Cotman in 1811 under the title of ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’. It must, however, have been one of the last plates to have been etched, and represents a compendium of the kinds of details with which he had been engaged whilst working on the series over the previous twelve months or so. The series was Cotman’s first venture into line etching and in it we can see him take his first faltering steps, and mature quickly into confidence. This was clearly meant as proof of the capabilities he had developed. The series proved the beginning of a decade of intense work in the medium in which he published several hundred plates, many of them masterpieces of his art, and of work in the medium.
Cotman appears to have drawn the details of this composition from a variety of sources. The frieze of tiles, for example, is very like that in an etching of ‘The South Porch of Terrington St Clements Church, Norfolk’, which was published in Cotman’s Norfolk Antiquities series in 1818. It is intriguing, perhaps, that there is no such detail in any of the Miscellaneous Etchings of 1811. It is further noteworthy that the Terrington church subject was not etched until 1817. It seems likely, however that [not untypically] Cotman began work on some of the Norfolk Antiquities subjects before he had completed the Etchings by John Sell Cotman.
An impression in the author’s collection is inscribed in the upper right margin in brown ink by Cotman (slightly trimmed] ‘D.B.Murphy Esq/ with the Authors Compts’ and in graphite by unknown hand ’69’. This is bound into a volume containing a set of Norfolk Antiquities etchings , published in 1818, together with a set of Etchings by John Sell Cotman from 1811, both separately inscribed by the artist to D.B.Murphy. The fact that the dedication to Murphy is trimmed, suggests that the original sheet size was slightly larger than its current 475 x 370 mm. The number inscribed in graphite is the plate number in sequence as bound in that particular volume. In this impression the paper is somewhat discoloured and stained, and the verso is marked with the offset of the dedication to Sir Henry Englefield, which follows it in the sequence.
In 1835 Cotman sold the majority of his remaining stock of his copper plates to the publisher H.G.Bohn. Bohn specialised in turning a profit from stalled or failed printmaking projects and in 1838 produced a two-volume edition of two hundred and thirty eight Cotman etchings under the title of ‘Specimens of Architectural Remains in various Counties in England, but especially in Norfolk. Etched by John Sell Cotman Esq., with Architectural Observations by Thomas Rickman Esq.’. These were finely printed on good quality paper. Bohn reworked some of the plates, mostly lightly where he seems to have thought they needed touching up, but where, as in the majority of cases, the coppers were little worn from Cotman’s own editions, Bohn’s impressions do Cotman’s work great credit. It does have to be said, however that Bohn worked the plates very hard, taking several hundred impressions from each, and there is a perceptible lightening and weakening between early and late impressions.
Bohn used the present plate as the title page for both volumes of his edition. The detail is untouched, except for the inscription on the entablature which Bohn altered to read; ‘VOLUME I/ Published by Henry G. Bohn, 4, York St Covent Garden’, and then, having run off a sufficient number of impressions for that volume, had it altered again to read ‘VOLUME II/ Published by Henry G. Bohn, 4, York St Covent Garden’. Comparison of the title pages of different sets shows that those of the second volume are sometimes lighter than those of the first.
Summary of known states:
First published state
As editioned by Cotman for his ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman, published in 1811
Line etching, image size 358 x 250 mm on plate 367 x 259 mm, printed [as published in D.B.Murphy volume; see below] in black ink on heavyweight, soft, wove paper, watermarked ‘1810’, 475 x 340 mm
Inscribed in plate as part of image, ‘ETCHINGS/ BY/ JOHN.SELL.COTMAN/ LONDON; PUBLISHED FOR THE AUTHOR BY MESSRS BOYDELL & CO, CHEAPSIDE/ COLNAGHI & CO, COCKSPUR ST, TODD & CO, YORK & MR WHYTE/ EDINBURGH/ 1811’ and inscribed in plate in script lower right ‘Cotman inv & sc 1811’
Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : FAP211
Second published state
As editioned by H.G.Bohn as title page to Volume I of ‘Specimens of Architectural Remains in various Counties in England, but especially in Norfolk’, 1838, with lettering on entablature altered to read ‘[in open caps] VOLUME 1/ [in script] London, Published by Henry G. Bohn, 4 York St, Covent Garden’.
Third published state
A editioned by H.G.Bohn as title page. to Volume 2 of ‘Specimens of Architectural Remains in various Counties in England, but especially in Norfolk’, 1838, with lettering on entablature altered to read ‘[in open caps] VOLUME II/ [in script] London, Published by Henry G. Bohn, 4 York St, Covent Garden’.
Popham, 1922, no.1
Last update: Professor David Hill, 9 June 2021