Plate 1, Beeston Priory, Norfolk

This is the fourth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings, published in 1811. Here, in the first plate, Cotman gives advance warning that this series will be a little out of the ordinary. Instead of making a grand entrance, he rather shuffles onto the stage. Instead of making some flourishing demonstration of his powers, rather he gives us the scratchings of an obscure corner of North Norfolk.

Beeston Priory 1811
John Sell Cotman
Beeston Priory, Norfolk, 1810
Private collection
Photograph: Professor David Hill

This is an etching of the angle of a gothic ruin, with a blind lancet on the left wall, and a tall lancet window on the right wall, flanked by two blind lancets. There is a rustic wicket fence to the left, giving onto an open distance, mature trees glimpsed beyond the ruins, timbers leaning against the wall at the centre of the composition and spars (or stone courses) on the ground in the foreground. The impression is inscribed on the plate  bottom left of subject, ‘Published Novr 24th 1810’; on the plate bottom right of subject, ‘J.S. Cotman Del et Sc’; and on the plate in the bottom right margin, in drypoint [see notes] ‘Beeston, Norfolk’.

The plate was editioned by Cotman on 24 November 1810 for issue to subscribers to a series of ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’ that he had begun in the middle of that year. The complete set of twenty-four plates, plus a title page, dedication and description of the contents was issued as a bound volume from the summer of 1811, where the present plate was no.3 in the sequence. In 1836 Cotman sold most of his remaining stock of copper plates to the publisher H. G. Bohn who in 1838 published two hundred and thirty eight subjects in a two volume set titled ‘‘Specimens of Architectural Remains in various Counties in England, but especially in Norfolk. The present plate appeared in Volume 2 as pl. 23 of series 5, ‘Cotman’s Liber Studiorum’. The 1838 Bohn impression is additionally inscribed on the plate in the top right corner ’23’.

There is a specific 1811 impression in a volume presented by Cotman the artist D B Murphy. In this context Murphy is principally known for having painted Cotman’s portrait. The paper used in many of Cotman’s early etchings is fine-toned, but has proved susceptible to damp. In this case the verso is immaculate, but the recto has been discoloured by acids offsetting from the image area of the previous page, i.e. the dedication to Sir Henry Englefield. This impression is inscribed in graphite by Cotman below subject ‘Beeston Priory’. The plates from the collected edition published in 1811 are generally inscribed by the author in graphite below the image, as called for in the printed list of subjects. Murphy volume impression additionally inscribed by unknown hand top right, ”(1)’ [the plate number in this series] and ’71’ the number in this particular volume.

The impression in the Murphy volume was editioned by Cotman in 1811. It is not, however the earliest state. Norwich Castle Museum has an impression as published with the pencil title, but lacking the drypoint title that appears here.

Beeston priory photo
North East corner of the chancel of Beeston Priory
Photograph by Prof David Hill, October 2008

The subject is the north east corner of the chancel of Beeston Priory, which stands on the outskirts of Sheringham in North Norfolk. The subject is, however, reversed in the etching process.

Here is a Google Earth aerial view of North Norfolk:

GE Beeston Priory

To see the site in Google Maps click on the following link:


On site, it is distinctly noticeable on site that Cotman has isolated a motif from a relatively complete building.

Beeston Priory photo #2
Chancel of Beeston Priory, Norfolk
Photograph by Prof David Hill, October 2008

Most of the walls of the nave and transepts survive, and he does not appear to have made any attempt to convey a sense of the whole, but rather to dwell upon one small part. It is not at all obvious from the information conveyed by the image, for example, what part of the ruin we are considering. In fact the void to the left of the composition (which would have been to the right in the original composition) represents the space left by a collapsed great east window. That is obvious on site, and would have been clear in the composition had Cotman included anything of the opposite side of the chancel.

Beeston Priory - Cotmans perch
Chancel of Beeston Priory, south wall.
Photograph by Prof David Hill taken October 2008.
Cotman appears to have drawn this subject whilst seated at the foot of the stairs to the right

Cotman’s viewpoint appears to be a perch on a column base to the right side of the doorway to the former spiral staircase in the south transept.

The reversal of the subject in the etching is a natural consequence of Cotman’s relative inexperience in the techniques of etching. In order for the print to give a true image of the subject, Cotman would need to work out how to engrave it as a mirror image. This is one of the true mysteries of the engraver’s art, and a problem that Cotman had to solve quickly, if he was to have much credibility in the field. As we shall see, it was an art that he did master, albeit falteringly.

We do not know when Cotman visited Beeston Priory to sketch this subject, but he was a regular visitor to the area whilst courting Ann Miles of nearby Felbrigg before their marriage in 1809. His original sketch of the subject is unknown, but we can hypothesise that it was a true representation of the subject, drawn in the highly sensitised style of his Norwich years 1806-09, and that it demonstrated the close attention to architectural detail found in the engraved image.

Norwich excursions Beeston
Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums Online

The same general composition, although not the specific architectural detail, was reused as the basis of a small plate engraved in 1818 by Robert Edwards for a two-volume edition of Excursions through Norfolk published in 1818. Although these plates were etched professionally, they are small and do not do full justice to the exquisite set of pencil and grey wash drawings that Cotman made especially for the engravers to follow. The wash drawing of the present subject, signed and dated 1818, is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (747*3), although I have not yet found the opportunity to examine it in person.

MEC Beeston 1827 Keys 2013
Image courtesy of Keys Auctions Ltd

In 1827 Cotman’s eldest son, Miles Edmund, then aged sixteen and training with his father to work as an artist, made a careful pencil drawing of the subject. This was sold at Key’s Auctioneers, Aylsham on 22 November 2013 as lot 11. It is a more-or-less direct copy of the etching published in 1811, but in the process the material has become prettified and vignetted. The draftsmanship is nowhere near as good as that of the etching and the architectural forms are neither so well seen or understood. It is careful, especially in following the details of the fencing, but lacks, for example, the thoughtful pattern of shadow on the brightly lit bay at the centre of the composition of the etching.

NCM Beeston drawing
Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums Online.

Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1932.105.50) also has a drawing that appears to be a careful, but inferior, copy of Miles Edmund’s drawing, possibly by a pupil.

Norwich Dixon Beeston
Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums Online

An almost contemporary etching of the south east corner, shown in the correct orientation was published by Robert Dixon in 1810 (NCM 138.954). Dixon was a Norwich-based artist with premises in Tombland. Norfolk Museums Online lists 277 examples of his work in pencil, watercolour, oils and print. Most are relatively unexciting, but there is the occasional watercolour with a quiet understated refinement, not altogether dissimilar to Cotman. In 1811 he issued a series of 37 plates under the title of ‘Sketches Illustrative of y Picturesque Scenery of Norfolk’. Dixon and Cotman were part of a wave of Norwich artists who adventured together into etching at about his time. Crome was perhaps the leader, but Cotman was undoubtedly the best. The comparison with Dixon’s etching is instructive for illuminating Cotman’s very much more poetic approach (and accuracy of architectural detail, albeit in reverse) , but also intriguing for its similarities; for example the pieces of wood leaning against the wall, and the spars or stone courses lying in the foreground. Indeed the two compositions are so similar and of the same date, as to raise the possibility that there must be some direct relationship between them.

Beeston priory detail

Any observant perusal of Cotman’s work will soon discover examples of timbers leaning against walls, or of rickety wicket fences. It is almost as if he was using them as a visual cipher for his own name. A ‘Cotman’ would be a dweller or make of a rudimentary shelter, and a worker with rough and common sticks, branches and timbers. It was an idea, an approach and a subject-matter that he was to engage with all his career.

The plate of Beeston Priory was one of five small plates included in the first parts of the Etchings by John Sell Cotman, and together these are no doubt indicative of Cotman’s first, more tentative, adventures into etching. Afterwards the plates are all at least twice the size. This plate is not the first to have been engraved – eight others, including four larger plates, have earlier dates – but it was chosen to head the list of subjects in the printed list of the collected edition. Even amongst other early plates, it does appear to be anything like the most confident.

Beeston is the first of four Norfolk subjects in the series of 24 plates + title and dedication, and with three plates of Braiseworth, and one each of Croyland Abbey and St Botolph’s Priory, contributes to a total of eight East Anglian subjects, or one third of the illustrative plates. The striking fact about these, with the exception of two last, which were actually the two last plates the series, is how obscure and minor they are as subjects. Braiseworth outlandishly so, but Beeston and North Creake hardly constitute major architectural subjects, even in the north Norfolk area, and there are dozens of sites that he could have chosen in the region that would have provided better-known and more striking subjects.

To be blunt; Beeston is by far from being one of the more complete or more impressive ruin sites of North Norfolk, and is today more visited for its garden centre next door. Cotman’s selection of an obscure corner of an already obscure site concentrates the sense of sequestration almost to absurdity. We are plainly intended to wonder at all this obtuseness.

In a footnote to the Descriptive Index of subjects that he had printed for distribution at the completion of the series, Cotman explains ‘By means of the above Index, the subscribers to this work will be enabled to arrange the plates in the order that appears best to the ideas of the Author’. Conjectural as this must be, he makes a clear invitation to consider what those ideas might be: At the very least, by putting this subject above all others, that must include a willingness to consider modest things as well as great; to ignore the tendency to seek substance only in the demonstrative, and to learn how to establish value outside of the framework of preconceptions and received values. To value in short the products of a Cotman as much as those of a Chippendale. In his plate of Beeston Priory he certainly seem to advertise a determination to work against the grain.

Beeston priory detail tailpiece

Summary of known states:

First published state:

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811.

Line etching, image size 190 x 139 [irregular] mm on plate 216 x 145 mm, printed in black ink on heavyweight, soft, wove paper, 475 x  340 mm.

Inscribed in image bottom left of subject ‘Published Novr 24th 1810’; on plate bottom right of subject ‘J.S. Cotman Del et Sc’. Example at Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : FAP4 has same plate noise and scratches as (2). Impressions from the 1811 edition also have pencil title inscription by the artist in the lower margin, as called for in the printed list of contents.

Second published state:

As also editioned by Cotman for 1811 edition of ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, but with additional drypoint inscription, lower right of ‘Beeston, Norfolk’. It is not clear what proportion of the published impressions have this inscription.

Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1954.138)

Third 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, Vol. 2, series V, pl.23. Distinguished from earlier impressions by the addition of the number ’23’ top right. The plate noise tidied up a little, and the drypoint showing signs of wear. Bohn’s are high quality impressions on good paper, and in examples to hand there is no obvious sign of wear in any of the etched detail.


Popham, 1922, no.3

Last update by Prof David Hill, 9 June 2021

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