A Twopeny Portfolio: #1 Cotman, King’s Lynn

This article describes the first 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.

The drawing by Cotman was obviously the eye-catcher in the lot for me. The low estimate (£200-300) rather suggests that the auctioneers doubted its authenticity, despite the signature and date. Or perhaps it is simply that Cotman’s monochrome works are completely out of tune with contemporary taste. Cotman was too subtle even for his own times: In the contemporary clamour for attention he sometimes fails even to register.

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)
The South Gate, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, from the west, 1818
On the verso, a slight indication of pictures in frames?
Pencil and sepia wash on heavyweight, stiff, textured, warm cream, wove paper, 208 x 175 mm, 8 3/16 x 6 15/16 ins
Inscribed in pencil, lower right, by the artist, ‘J S Cotman 1818’ and on verso in pencil, ‘South Gate Lynn/ Norfolk’

This a small/medium pencil and sepia wash drawing showing a medieval gatehouse from the side, facing right where it commands a bridge over a stream. The right-facing wall is in full sun, whilst the side wall is in shade. A path winds from the left into the foreground along the stream bank, where a smartly dressed figure sits enjoying the sunshine Birds wheel in the sky in the left distance, whilst a trails of a shower drift by above.

[Click on images to view full size]

The subject is the west side of the South Gate at King’s Lynn. The gate survives largely intact but the high wall on the bridge has been removed. The viewpoint is from the west, and the sun is shining from almost due south. I have not yet managed to take my own comparative photograph, and from the Google Earth image it looks as if there is a large tree grown up in the way. Still, there are some fascinating comparative images on the splendid guide site to King’s Lynn, ‘The Walks.uk’ and a superb old postcard of pretty much exactly the same view on King’s Lynn forums

The watercolour was made for engraving in a book ‘Excursions in the County of Norfolk’, published in 2 volumes, 1819, where vol.2, opposite p.45 and inscribed in the plate lower margin centre ‘Engraved by J.Greig, from a Drawing by J.S.Cotman, for the Excursions through Norfolk. / SOUTH GATE LYNN / NORFOLK. / Pub.d July 1.1818, by Longman & Co Paternoster Row.’

Source: Norfolk Museums online

Cotman made several dozen drawings for the ‘Excursions through Norfolk’ project. They are painted in a uniform palette of subtle sepias and greys, and are some of the most sparing and economically beautiful drawings of Cotman’s career. In many ways they represent the aesthetic peak of his early career, so it is somewhat disappointing that the engravings are uniformly small and generally careless and on the whole are a travesty of the subtlety that Cotman invested in the originals.

In this case Cotman has invested a degree of thought into the specifics of the time of day and year. He picks out projecting details; a rainwaterspout on the central angle buttress, the garderobe lower centre, and a projecting spur in the guard wall, almost directly at the centre of the composition, all in order to cast long steep shadows down to the left. The sun is just past south and at an angle of about 60 degrees. He even differentiates the angle of the shadow of the garderobe, in order to account for its slightly different angles of incidence to the sun. Only an artist intelligent to the sublime would notice such matters. It is midsummer and an optimal occasion for the figure in the composition to ponder such a phenomenon. Who else then would have been awake to such things? Perhaps more dispiritingly, who today might care?

To add insult to injury Grieg failed to pay for the work he had engraved, and dodged Cotman’s approaches. The story is told by Sydney Kitson in his ‘Life of Cotman’ pp.184-6. Cotman’s agreement with Grieg was to be paid 1 1/2 gns (£1.11.6) for each of the seventy-seven subjects that he painted, a total of £131.5.6 – enough to buy a small house – or for someone to lead a careful bourgeois existence for a year. It remains unclear whether Grieg or the publishers Longman’s ever actually paid what was owed.

Many of the ‘Excursions’ watercolours are already in museum collections, but a good number remain in private hands, and several are as yet unaccounted for. Let’s hope the market remains as blind to their merits as it appears to be at present!

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