‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’: An introduction

Introductions are normally best written last. At this stage, however, the outcome of this project remains at best distant, and at worst doubtful. It seems useful to offer at the outset a brief – if necessarily sketchy -overview of the etchings that follow.

‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’ is the artist’s first essay in the medium, and was published in 1811 as a collection of twenty-four plates, together with a title page and dedication page.

It was begun in 1810, and issued in parts over a period of about twelve months. Cotman’s very first essays in the medium are dated to 1809. There is a very small number of early subjects that were not included in the final series and these are listed following the last of the published series.

Cotman distributed trial proofs to friends, patrons and booksellers, and through this network collected subscriptions for over two hundred copies. Where prepublication states are known, these are mentioned under the individual subjects. He printed lists of subscribers to promote the project and the final version was issued with the collected edition. In all he appears to have printed about three hundred impressions from each plate, but [without having made a very extensive collation] there does not seem to have been any serious degradation of the plates.

The editions were printed by J Keymer of Yarmouth, and Cotman chose a soft, white wove paper. In well-preserved impressions this gives a rich, warm tone to the prints, but over time the paper does seem to have been prone to absorbing atmospheric moisture, and the many impressions are affected to a greater or lesser degree. Pristine impressions appear to be in the minority.

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.’. This included all the plates issued by Cotman in 1811, but Bohn divided his edition up into five volumes, and the original 1811 sequence was disrupted.

Bohn’s impressions 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 generally added his own series numbers in the top right hand corner, and these may be used to readily distinguish the 1838 impressions from those of 1811.

Last updated by Professor David Hill, 8 March 2019

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