Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This article considers the twentieth work of twenty-five bought at Anderson & Garland Ltd, Newcastle upon Tyne, 21 March 2017, 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.
Here we consider a work by William Twopeny, one of the most considerable of the amateur antiquarian artists of the mid nineteenth century.
This is a carefully elaborated drawing of a heavily decorated niche. The sheet appears to have evolved in size, the first part being the upper part of the arch, then the lower centre and finials to each side, the right hand finial [at least] having been drawn whole, but subsequently trimmed.
The subject is as inscribed on the verso, ‘Monumental Arch/ Navenby Church/ Lincolnshire’. Navenby is nine miles south of Lincoln on the road to Grantham. More particularly the arch is that of The Founder’s Tomb, situated in the north wall of the chancel of St Peter’s Church. The term ‘Founder’s Tomb’ generally refers to a monument to someone of particular importance to a church. In this case the tomb is thought to be that of the Parish Priest, John de Fenton, dating from around 1331, not long after the completion of the chancel in which he lies. The decoration is typical of the flamboyant and exceptionally sophisticated style of the Decorated period of Gothic, drawing deeply on natural and greenwood imagery.
At the time of writing coronavirus has pretty much all of us confined to barracks, so I am unable for the moment to visit Navenby to take a photograph. By way of compensation, however, I did come across a splendid painting of the subject by the artist Jack Blyth. He has very kindly allowed me to reproduce his image. Readers might well be interested to visit his website and look around his gallery. We have had occasion in this series already observe a shared aesthetic with the ecclesiastical interiors of John Sell Cotman. Many of Jack Blyth’s architectural interiors have the same character.
In the present drawing we have clear evidence of the artist and date. The drawing is initialled and dated ‘W.T. Oct 1823’. The initials are those of William Twopeny (1797-1873). We have heard quite a bit about him in previous articles, but since this is the only work in the portfolio by him, it is worth giving an overview here.
He was born in Rochester, Kent, where his family lived and conducted a successful legal business in the Cathedral Close. He was the second of five sons, and the third-born of ten children in all. During the later eighteenth century William’s grandfather built a country house at Woodstock Park, near Sittingbourne, and during his childhood that was owned by his uncle. In 1826 Woodstock passed to William’s elder brother Edward. Woodstock features in a number of drawings in this portfolio, attributed here to William’s younger brother David (see parts #8-11).
William trained as a lawyer and eventually built a successful practice in London. He never married and instead devoted his energies to antiquarian enquiry. He became an able draftsman and toured the country recording old buildings and architectural details. He found time to publish two volumes of etchings after his own drawings, Etchings of Ancient Capitals in 1837 and Specimens of Ancient Woodwork in 1859. On his death he gifted thirty-eight volumes of drawings and notes to the British Museum, where they remain to this day. Very few of the hundreds of drawings have been published, except for a selection of English Metal Work in 1904 with a foreword by Lawrence Binyon, and of Kent subjects included in Eric R Swain’s book ‘William Twopeny in Kent’, published by Winston Publications of Sittingbourne, in 1986. Most of the British Museum drawings are initialled and dated in similar style to the present drawing. Many are also numbered in similar style, and it seems that the present drawing must originally have had a place in the overall sequence, but was taken out to represent him in the family portfolio.
William Twopeny was twenty-six at the date of this drawing, and on this evidence already a highly accomplished draftsman. I have not managed to discover where or with whom he trained, but it seems obvious that his technique is influenced by close observation of etching. The way in which the shade under the niches is built up from multiple lines is exactly that of line etching. On the other hand, the involuted forms of foliage are modelled in an entirely different manner using finely graduated tone. We know from examples at the British Museum that William Twopeny worked on many of his drawings twice. Firstly at the time of his visit to the sites, and then later in life he developed them with richer tone. That seems also to have happened here.
We have already noted that similar antiquarian interests and an etching-derived style, were shared by William Twopeny’s younger brother, David, at least for a little while in the latter’s youth (see parts #3-4). The linear working of both artists might well have been inspired by John Sell Cotman in his antiquarian etchings, particularly those of Norfolk subjects published mostly between 1812 and 1817.
It is not hard to see how the present subject might have been inspired [for example] by Cotman’s etching of a niche in North Creake church. It is by no means the only such subject amongst more than one hundred and twenty antiquarian etchings made by Cotman in that period.
In terms of antiquarian purposes, William Twopeny might even be said to be a superior draftsman to Cotman. The general scholarly complaint is that Cotman rather sacrificed his artistic temperament to an antiquarian objectivity, but comparison with Twopeny’s drawing makes plain that in even the most academic of subjects, Cotman’s artistic imperative bent every aspect to itself.
When cataloguing the Cotman drawings at Leeds Art Gallery a couple of years ago, I was struck how even in subjects that seem only to have required tedious technical transcription, such as a Rood Screen at Walsoken Church, Norfolk,
Cotman invested his line with a cardiographic trace of his own living and embodied eye to hand co-ordination. This becomes most evident in comparing similar details of Twopeny’s drawing and Cotman’s etching of North Creake. One might say that Twopeny serves brilliantly the purposes of objectivity, but Cotman’s primary interest is subjective.
Cotman further emphasises his subjectivity by always introducing a sense of occasion into work. So there is generally a shadow indicating a particular time of day. We might in passing observe that Jack Blyth’s painting shares a similar sense.
But the similarities between the drawings are also striking. Both are homages to the exquisite naturalism and inventiveness of Gothic carving. In writing about the Walsoken screen in the Leeds collection I was struck by what depth of concentration, and engrossment Cotman’s drawing and etching implied. How completely submersive could be his engagement. The Twopeny drawing has exactly the same quality of dissolving oneself into the object. And although the styles are different they both acknowledge the aesthetic principle of the Gothic; that despite there being general system and order, every detail has the variety and distinction of being hand-crafted rather than precisely mensurated. Both Twopeny and Cotman recognise, respect and reflect that quality.
Cotman and Twopeny also share a sense of common mission. Both were in the vanguard of a wave of antiquarianism that developed in Britain as the nineteenth century progressed. Their mission was to record buildings and features that were out of time. As I mentioned in my last article [part #19] aesthetics tend to be constructed by their opposites, and most of the buildings and architectural features that these artists recorded had been by-passed by the dynamics of industrial progress. Many were just being benignly neglected, many more forgotten, but many were in parlous condition, and ripe for redevelopment.
So in retracing Cotman’s footsteps, and obviously in the case of the present drawing by William Twopeny, there is also a strong sense of jumping off the beaten track. One might say in respect of the nineteenth century antiquarians, it is a little like refusing a reservation on a runaway train. Today one might decide to abandon the check-in queue at Stansted. I am still looking forward to visiting Navenby one day, even though it will most likely require submitting to the mad thrash down the A1.
And that brings me back to the coronavirused present. Twopeny’s immersion in his subject at Navenby offered a salutary antidote to the careering expansionism of his time: Now for a time we have been forced to park the juggernaut of consumerism. We can, by recompense, now see the sky clear of aircraft trails. Now for a time we will be forced to focus on smaller things.
There is one detail in the Founder’s Tomb at Navenby on which we might usefully focus. Look closely at the upper right spandrel where a cloaked figure peeps out of the leaves. In tombs such as this figures occasionally appear amongst the vegetation to represent a spirit of rejuvenation and hence in a Christian context, resurrection. It would seem that Spring is intended here, for the opposite spandrel has acorns and must represent autumn.
The whole monument is a celebration of natural vigour and energy. The situation in which we consider it [even if only vicariously] in the chancel of St Peter’s Church, Navenby, is one of abstraction from commerce and self-concern and of immersion in silence. The little figure peering out from the foliage strokes its chin in ponderment of us. Nature, it would appear, finds our predicament a cause for concern. The hint is worth taking.
TO BE CONTINUED
Next, a journey abroad with one of the last of the Twopenys.