This is the seventh part of a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings, published in 1811. Here we turn to plate 4 and remember an obscure detail from an early-career tour to Wales.
This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright architectural subject featuring a Romanesque portal with a small window above right.
The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 8 September 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 4 (of 24) of the completed set in 1811. The etching is one of five smaller plates etched for the series. In order of production it was the fourth.
Cotman’s printed descriptive index in the 1811 edition explains that ‘The Doorway given here is from part of the Ruins under the Dormitory’.
There is a Norman doorway surviving at Valle Crucis in the west facade of the dormitory, letting into the cloister. It even has the flat-arched window above to the right but the fine details differ in almost every specific aspect.
There is, however, a pencil and grey wash watercolour, signed and dated 1803 that was at one time with Spink’s in London and later sold at Tennants auctioneers of Leyburn, Yorkshire, on 2 April 2009, as lot 658, ‘Valle Crucis Abbey, Denbighshire – a Doorway’, est £400-600 and bought for £3800 by a London dealer.
The style of this drawing is perfectly consisted with the inscribed date, and certain elements, particularly the treatment of the slats above the door shows Cotman finding his first maturity. It is the same general view of the dormitory doorway as the etching, but the details differ from those of the surviving structure.
In any case these portals, even if they were accurately observed, amount to a somewhat obtuse representation of Valle Crucis. This is quite typical of Cotman’s sometimes peculiar ideas of representative subject matter. Valle Crucis is a substantial ruin in an impressive setting, with both its east and west gables and windows standing. Cotman even admits as much in his descriptive index: [the abbey is] ‘most romantically situated in the Vale of Alen, near Llangollen’. In making that comment he seems only to draw attention to the fact that the viewer will be seeing nothing of that situation here.
By contrast, Turner had treated Valle Crucis in brooding mood during the 1790s
Cotman might well have been forgiven for not wanting to compete directly with an artist that was actively defining the public’s conception of sublimity in landscape, Cotman’s choioce of subject suggests that he positively wanted to shut out anything that might suggest largeness of scale or ambition. Cotman most certainly did have a sense of poetic scope, and frequently gave it full rein, but at the same time, he had a deeply intimate sense of concentration and focus. Turner hardly ever allowed himself to appear at all sequestered, and even in the 1830s when he returned to the subject, it was the same wide setting in which he was interested.
Cotman on the other hand frequently interiorised. One might say he was looking for an antidote to all that relentless striving and broadening; something closer to Blake’s grain of sand, or Wordsworth’s Anemone.
The general composition promises almost nothing. One might well dismiss it as an entirely minor work. Indeed that impression is very difficult to dispel, excepting that the interest very much opens up if one persists to extremely close quarters.
In many ways that is exactly where Cotman’s focus lay at this time. He was still tentatively feeling his way forward into etching – his earliest dated venture is an unpublished plate of Old Cottages dated 9 June 1810 and before beginning the present plate he can have made only half a dozen previous attempts of any kind. His attention was resolutely in achieving some real aesthetic quality to his etched line. The one earlier plate thus far in the published series of Miscellaneous Etchings – The Manor House York – whilst Rembrandtian enough – was largely, as he acknowledged, the product of being over-worked. There are however, signs that he was beginning to see calligraphic, even hieroglyphic possibilities with the etched line, and here, in the portal of Valle Crucis, he began to find the basis on which to extend his expressiveness. To have sufficient technique to use it with talent.
There are lines in the stones of the arch that are extraordinarily extenuated and the wood grain becomes an excuse for whorling and involuting on an outlandish scale. One can sense him beginning to take real aesthetic pleasure in these possibilities, to exploit a sheer bravura of etched mark, and to use the medium for pure graphic expressiveness to a degree rarely attempted since Rembrandt.
It is plain, however, that he was still far from habituated to the medium. The darkest lines are over-bitten, that is the acid has burned too wide a groove or patch, and the ink has printed pale and blurred in those areas.
The crossed-out mistake in the inscription is almost comically amateur and it seems extraordinary that he let that stand. It is perhaps even more surprising that he dared presume to offer this work to the public. Etching by this time was a highly professionalised and specialist discipline. Although Turner experimented with it himself at about the same time, he quickly realised that it was best left to specialists. Cotman must have known that his own prints could not even remotely compete on a purely technical level. He saw etching, however, as a medium of direct artistic expression. Calculated, as he said ‘to shew Talent’, or in which as his friends said, he ‘translated himself’ very well. It was a brave move, to offer etchings up as genuinely artistically autograph productions. Professional etchers and engravers were almost wholly identified as the reproducers of art, rather than its creators. As technically limited as Cotman’s first efforts were, he must have hoped that their artistic priorities would be appreciated. Very Rembrandtian, as some of his friends observed, and indeed recognised in the form of subscriptions.
Summary of known states:
First published state
As issued in volume form by Cotman 1811.
Line etching, image size [irregular] 196 x 137 mm on plate 217 x 145 mm, printed in black ink on heavyweight, handmade, soft, wove paper, 475 x 340 mm.
Inscribed lower right, on plate bottom right of subject ‘Vale Crucis Abbey N Wales’; on plate bottom left centre of subject ‘Norwich Etched and by [deleted] Published/ by J. S. Cotman Sepr 8th 1810’. Plates from the collected 1811 edition of the etchings are inscribed in graphite by the artist ‘Val Crucis Abbey, Denbys’ as called for in the printed list of subjects.
Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1956.254.6).
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 included in ‘Vol. 2, series IV, xiv’. Perhaps more richly inked and printed on heavyweight, machine-made, stiff wove paper, sheet size as published, 490 x 350 mm. With an etched number XIV added top centre, and with little or no perceptible wear from the 1811 impressions e.g. NWHCM : 1923.86.6
?Exh Norwich Society of Artists in 1811 (no.79 as ‘A Door-way, Valle Crucis Abbey, North Wales’).
Popham, 1922, no.6.