This is the fifth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings, published in 1811. Here, we turn to plate 2 to stand on a threshold, surrounded by strange signs.
This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of a young man, probably a scholar, standing at the entrance of an ornamental gateway surmounted by an elaborate coat of arms. Cotman has inscribed the subject in the lower right margin of the plate: ‘The Manoror House York’.
The subject is the Jacobean doorway at the southern end of the north-east façade of the Abbot’s house in the King’s Manor, York. It bears the cipher of James I on its bases either side, but is surmounted by the arms of the succeeding monarch, Charles I. Cotman’s image reverses the detail, and there are numerous discrepancies with the surviving doorway. The most obvious is the presence of a corniced pediment enclosing the coat of arms. Cotman visited York on each of his tours to Yorkshire in 1803, 1804 and 1805, though no sketches by him of this subject survive.
Click to enlarge and scroll in and out:
The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 1 August 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 2 (of 24) of the completed set in 1811. It is the earliest dated of the published plates.
Miklos Rajnai in NCM 1979 n.15 notes that Cotman refers to this subject in a letter dated 5 March 1811 to his Yorkshire patron Francis Cholmeley in the North Yorkshire County Record Office at Northallerton: ‘The Manor doorway was a trial plate, a spoilt one, which by repeated attempts to bring to perfection I produced that which you called Rembrandtish.. The style I have adopted [in later plates] is more difficult than that style of the Manor House, which is made up of scratches; [in] the other style every line is studied and is decided, consequently more calculated to shew talent’.
Cotman presented Francis Cholmeley with two impressions of an early state, together with a third of a later state, still some way short of the published state, which he inscribed ‘A Doorway to the Manor House York – an Unfinished Plate’. It is one of the earliest dated of all his etchings and the earliest of all those published. The proof states are important evidence of the way in which the composition and his process was developed.
The plate is one of five smaller plates issued as nos. 1-5 of the collected set, all dating from August to November 1810, and indicating something of a tentative start to his etching career. By inference, Francis Cholmeley must have expressed some admiration for the Manor House, Later in the letter Cotman elaborates on Cholmeley’s use of the word ‘Rembrandtish’. ‘I have not echoed your word as a reproach of taste or a wrong conception of similitude to that master for it really is similar and is a favourite of mine and to call it Rembrandtish is a great compliment, though it would not do to follow that master in my subjects.’
Perhaps Cholmeley particularly liked the velvety texture of the ink in this print, which was also a much admired characteristic of Rembrandt’s more heavily worked plates. In truth, Cotman confessed, this was simply the result of him overworking the plate, and with greater experience in the medium he sought to achieve a more studied and economic use of the etched line. Rembrandt was equally good at that, moreover, and was hugely influential in establishing etching as a genuinely artistic medium.
By Cotman’s time, however, etching had become highly professionalised and principally functioned as a reprographic medium and there were few artists attempting distinctively affective autography. Even in Cotman’s first essays as here, both his conceptions and his handling articulate a personal and introspective poetry, He was to return to the medium at intervals over a period of twenty-five years and deserves greater contemporary recognition as one of the best artist etchers of his time.
It is slightly problematic that the date inscription is present even in the earliest of the Cholmeley proofs. Despite the claim to a publication date of 1 August 1810, it is obvious that the plate was not editioned then, still less actually published. Presumably the date inscription was done as an integral part of the design, when Cotman first thought that it was finished. As the Cholmeley proofs indicate, however, there were several revisions after the date inscription was made, and presumably the plate was not actually editioned until somewhat later, after the title inscription ‘The Manoror House, York’ was added.
The spelling of ‘Manoror’ is presumably a mistake, and evidence of Cotman’s inexperience with the medium. Many of his etchings have mistakes in the lettering. In this case when the plate was republished by H G Bohn in 1838, the superfluous letters ‘or’ were burninshed away.
It is frustrating that none of Cotman’s original sketches of the King’s Manor are known, nor any original design for the composition. It is, however, plain that Cotman was not yet sufficiently expert in the process of etching to reverse the details on the plate so that they would appear the correct way round in the print.
One obvious result of that is the reversal of the regal monogram at the base of the side piers (IR mirrored) and the rather comic attempt to camouflage that by trying to turn it a mirrored ‘R’. Beyond that, however there are significant issues relating to accuracy. There is a significant entablature above the door missing from the etching, the door pier to the left bears little resemblance to that actually found in reality to the right, and there are significant differences in detail all around the royal coat of arms.
The discrepancies in the armorial shield is especially puzzling. In the etching, Cotman shows the royal shield as it was prior to the Union of the Crowns when James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne in 1603. The arms shown by Cotman subsisted from the reigns of Henry IV to that of Elizabeth I. Those in situ, however, are those of James I to James II. From contemporary drawings, however e.g. that by John Browne made in 1817 (York City Art Gallery R1571) it does appear that Cotman is in error, and Brown’s drawing, if we take that to be accurate, suggests many other inaccuracies in Cotman’s image. Besides all that, however, one interesting artistic detail relating to the King’s Manor that we might imaging that Cotman was familiar with, is the fact that between 1712 and 1835 it was occupied by Mr Lumley’s Boarding School for Ladies, where in Cotman’s time, Henry Cave was the drawing master.
The errors and deviations are engrossing, and more than slightly bewildering, but it is clear that Cotman’s primary aim was aesthetic in response to an antiquarian subject, rather than antiquarian per se. There is obviously an important symbolic dimension to the figure stood half inside and out, half in light and half in dark, immersed in thought. Poetically, the image proposes that architecture is a substance of memory and also the housing for institutions of memory and information. It is almost as if the marks that surround the figure represent the texture and hieroglyphs of his imagination.
Summary of known states:
Engraver’s proof. (1)
Presented by Cotman to Francis Cholmeley, and descended to present private collection.
Engraver’s proof. (2)
Presented by Cotman to Francis Cholmeley, and descended to present private collection.
First published state:
As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811.
Line etching, image size [irregular] 210 x 137 mm on plate 217 x 145 mm, printed in black ink on heavyweight, soft, wove paper, 475 x 340 mm
Inscribed on the plate lower left (partly obscured by being etched over) ; ‘Norwich Etched and Published by/ J S Cotman Aug 1st 1810’ and below right, ‘The Manoror House York’. The date inscription clear in proofs of earlier states, such as those in a private collection descended from Francis Cholmeley. The inscribed title not present in any of the early Cholmeley proofs, whereas the date inscription is present from the beginning. The plates in the collected 1811 edition additionally inscribed by Cotman in graphite ‘Manor House Yorks’, as called for in the printed list of subjects.
Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1956.254.4), Leeds Art Gallery 1939.075
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, Vol.
References: Popham, 1922, no.4
[To be completed]
Last update by Prof David Hill, 9 June 2021