Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This is the second work of twenty-five bought in a lot of Sundry Drawings and Watercolours, offered at Anderson & Garland Ltd, Newcastle upon Tyne, 21 March 2-17, lot 46 as Various Artists (British 19th Century) Sundry drawings and watercolours, mainly topographical and floral studies, including a grisaille “South Gate Lynn, Norfolk”, bearing the signature J.S. Cotman, various sizes, all unframed in a folio.
Given that the principal eye-catcher in the portfolio was the Cotman watercolour of the Aouth Gate, King’s Lynn (see Part #1) the discovery of a second Cotman subject in the bundle was the cause of further excitement.
This a carefully-drawn pencil copy of a composition by John Sell Cotman. The subject is the chancel of Walsoken Church, Norfolk.Cotman treated the subject on several occasions.
There prime versions of the composition are a watercolour of c.1816 at Birmingham Art Gallery (147’22)
Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries
and an etching dated 1817 published as plate 54 of his ‘Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk’, 1818.
Norwich Castle Museum has a thumbnail pencil composition study together with some details of the capitals (NWHCM : 1966.749.3)
and in addition there are later watercolours, one dated 1830 sold at Christie’s 29 March 1983, no.128
and another, attributed to Cotman’s son, Miles Edmund Cotman when sold at Sotheby’s 4 July 2001 no. 216, latterly with the London dealer Chris Beetles in 2018.
The hand of the present drawing, however, is plainly not that of John Sell Cotman. The handling of perspective is nowhere near good enough for him. One needs only to point out the window seen through the doorway to the right, or the treatment of the bench at the right, to establish a relative lack of proficiency.
The problem is that it is by no means certain what might have been the source from which this was taken. It differs in detail from every one of the Cotman examples. There are minor differences everywhere, but the most important seems to be the difference in treatment of the vaulting seen through the central arch. The Cotman versions are consistent with one another, but this differs. Another significant difference is the shadow under the bench at the right. Every one of the Cotmans, makes subtle play of this detail. The only exception is the Chris Beetles version, in which the shadow is absent as here.
On the whole, though, the closest similarity, given the linear effects across the main wall, is with the engraving. The deviations are perhaps merely testimony to a degree of inattention, or even wilfulness on the part of the copyist. One final puzzlement, however, is in the crack running through the rightmost arch. This is only present in the Birmingham watercolour and the engraving and is treated similarly in each. Here, however, it is comprehensively, and plainly wilfully, reinvented.
The watermark proves that it cannot have been made before 1823. But there is otherwise no hint as to the possible authorship. It seems something of a coincidence that a portfolio that contained one genuine Cotman, should contain another Cotman subject, but a copy. The portfolio evinces some connection to Cotman, and perhaps the best suspicion is that the drawing might be by the same hand as some of the other drawings in the portfolio. Quite what the direct connection with Cotman might be remains unclear at this stage.