Cotman and St Benet’s: Part 4

This is the fourth of a series of articles exploring Cotman’s association with St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk. In Parts 1 and 2 we considered Cotman’s early treatments of the subject, and in part 3 an etching published in 1813. The etching is a masterpiece and inspired a considerable body of related work. This part attempts to distinguish between contributory and derivative versions of the same composition.

In part 3 we discussed the unique inventions that contribute to the aesthetic success of the etching. Cotman combined separate angles of view in a single composition. Simply put, the windmill doorway is Cotman’s invention in relation to this angle on the gateway. So too is the extraordinarily low viewpoint, the proximity of the sails of boats on the river Ant, and the configuration of spars in the turning array. These details can be taken as diagnostic in considering the numerous comparative treatments of St Benet’s that survive to us. Here we will consider examples that replicate Cotman’s inventions exactly.


At the very least we can assume that Cotman made reasonably detailed on-the-spot sketches of both the west and south views of St Benet’s. None has been certainly identified thus far. After that we can surmise that Cotman made a detailed studio drawing of the composition, at the same scale as the etching, and also perhaps a tracing of that to facilitate the accurate transfer of the architectural masses to the plate. Once again nothing is known today that would answer

One possible candidate for an on-the-spot sketch be a pencil drawing at the British Museum [1902.5.14.255]. This is described on the BM website as ‘the windmill r, sails facing towards left distance; enclosed within a framing line’, and the curatorial commentary says: ‘Possibly a first sketch for the subject etched in 1813 and subsequently included in the ‘Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk’ in 1818’. Sadly, there is no reproduction on the British Museum online catalogue, so it is impossible to form a view. This is a little frustrating, for although I have looked through the British Museum Cotmans several times over the last few decades, I do not have any recollection of this drawing, and the current Covid situation makes it unlikely that I am going to be able to arrange to see it for some time to come.

The most detailed published commentary on Cotman and St Benet’s is that by Andrew Moore in his Norwich Castle Museum catalogue of John Sell Cotman published in 1982. Under the entry for no.112 he lists Cotman’s various treatments of the subject. In part 3, I speculated that the composition might have originated as a project separate to the Norfolk Antiquities. In that light it is tantalising that he mentions a watercolour in a private collection that might be antecedent. It is not clear what this might be, but the context suggests that it was a version of the Lady Lever Art Gallery composition discussed in part 2 so its is possible that the watercolour in question is that at San Francisco, already discussed in parts 1 and 2, which entered their collections in 1964.

Works replicating the composition of the etching:

?John Sell Cotman, St Benet’s Abbey, c.1820? Pencil on paper, 9 x 14 ½ ins. Scanned from Rienaeker 1953, pl.97.

One example, not mentioned by Moore 1982 under no.112, is a firm pencil drawing that was with the London dealers, Agnew’s in 1953 and reproduced in the same year in Victor Rienaecker’s book on John Sell Cotman, as pl.97. This is very much in Cotman’s style, and the masses, shapes and silhouettes are addressed with confidence and boldness. The general composition is derived from the etching but the detail is simplified and reduced.

The extreme thoughtfulness of the detail in the etching, for example the glimpse of the rigging of a wherry through the arch towards the left, is sacrificed for a more general heightening of the dynamism in the design. The rickety slenderness of the timbers in the etching is replaced by a structural doughtiness. The angles are refined, reinforced and applied to work throughout. The chiaroscuro is emboldened, and the whole mass of the mill made to occupy the composition still more purposefully. The conception is certainly Cotman’s, and the dynamism and power of its design, that of his maturity. It is, sadly, difficult to judge whether the hand is his on the basis only of the reproduction. I would expect anything by John Sell Cotman’s hand to have an instantly distinctive quality that only physical examination can properly detect.

John Thirtle (attrib), St Benet’s Abbey, c.1830? Watercolour, 204 x 307 mm. Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1936.115). Image courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum

A version of the same composition in watercolour is at the Norwich Castle Museum. In the current online catalogue this is attributed to John Thirtle but on no secure grounds. The hand is certainly not that of John Sell Cotman, but it is strong in both handling and colour, and continues the dynamic trend of the Agnew’s drawing. It even adds further excellences of its own. The shadow across the body of the tower is a thoughtful touch, and the strengthening of the purposeful angles of the timbers staging is effective. The sky is subtly but affectively coloured and there are brilliant highlights of saturated blue across the horizon line. It is a confident and accomplished watercolour that seems to merit more attention that it appears to have been given. It is not John Sell, but made entirely in his spirit, and perhaps his eldest son Miles Edmund Cotman, who was capable of great sensitivity, should be considered as a candidate.

?John Sell Cotman, St Benet’s Abbey, c.1818? Pencil on paper, 7 ½ x 11 ins. Sold Burstow and Hewett, Battle, Sussex, on 26 February 2021, lot 2552 as ‘Attributed to John Sell Cotman’. Image from Burstow & Hewett sales archive.

To the Agnew’s pencil drawing can now be added a second version of this composition in pencil. This appeared recently in a sale with Burstow and Hewett, Battle, Sussex, on 26 February 2021, lot 2552 as ‘Attributed to John Sell Cotman (1782 – 1842), pencil drawing, old windmill, 7.5″ x 11″’. If we plot this on the line of progression outlined above, then it has to take its place somewhere earlier than the Agnew’s drawing. It is less dynamic throughout, and less bold in its handling of details. The sails at the left, for example are far less crisply decided. Nor does the draftsmanship have anything like the gusto. Nevertheless it has qualities of its own. It understands, for example, better than the Agnew’s drawing, that the left edge of the pepper-pot shape of the windmill should continue to the ground as it does in the engraving. It also lengthens the wall leading from the windmill towards the sails. That has the effect of calming the composition, allowing it to spread itself a little more broadly across the ground. Stylistically the hand is perhaps diligent rather than affective, suggesting that it might have had some connection with the drawings that Cotman placed in portfolios for his students to copy. He created his first set in 1809, added to it throughout the 1810s, substantially revised it in about 1824 when he set up a new drawing school in Norwich, and again in the later 1830s when he took up his post of Professor of Drawing at King’s College School in London.

The Bank House, Great Yarmouth. Photograph by Professor David Hill. Home to the Dawson Turner family, and Cotman attended regularly for years as the retained family artist.

The relative undemonstrativeness of the Burstow & Hewett drawing, however, would fit best with a date of c.1815-23, when Cotman was living and teaching in Yarmouth. His regular work was with the family of Dawson Turner at the bank house in Yarmouth, where he taught drawing and etching to the ladies of the family. The fact that this drawing is inscribed ‘Turner’ on the verso, and perhaps a forename has been abraded, might connect it in some way with that family. Once again, if by John Sell Cotman, one would expect the hand to reveal distinctive quality in a direct physical examination.

Before moving on it is worth remarking that the Agnew’s drawing is a similar size to the etching, and the Burstow & Hewett drawing is smaller and similar in size to the Castle Museum watercolour. Further research might be able to draw inferences from that.

Thomas Shotter Boys (attrib), St Benet’s Abbey, date unknown, c.1815-35?, watercolour, 7 ¾ x 10 3/8 ins. Sold Sotheby’s, 15 June 1982, lot 161. Scanned from 1982 catalogue.

A watercolour version of the composition was sold by Sotheby’s in 1982 when reproduced in black and white, attributed to Thomas Shotter Boys under the title ‘St Benet’s Abbey on the Bure: Homage to Cotman’. It follows the detail of the etching everywhere, but takes far less interest in that detail, preferring a generally lively effect. The sails are rickety enough in Cotman’s original, here they appear to be actively disintegrating. It is not altogether clear what was the basis of the 1982 attribution to Boys. It is worth noting that he was only ten years old when Cotman’s etching was first published. He did, however, train as an engraver with Cotman’s friend George Cooke, and might well have come into contact with Cotman’s work by that route.

Miles Edmund Cotman (attrib), St Benet’s Abbey, c.1840s?, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 51 cm, sold Sotheby’s 11 July 1990 no.96.

Besides these, but also unknown to Andrew Moore in 1982, is an oil painting sold at Sotheby’s 11 July 1990 no.96 attributed to Miles Edmund Cotman. This is a closely related, and substantial treatment of the subject, developing the atmospheric effect and skyscape to some effect. Comparison of detail shows that the design is tighter in the etching, and even a small detail such as the cow seen through the gate, is more complex in conception in the etching, being behind the supporting spar, rather than in front. A second reproduction of this online at the Art9000 website, is less impressive than the earlier reproduction.

Another version of the same composition, 16 x 20 in was sold 27 November 2015 and is reproduced on the Mutual Art website.

Miles Edmund Cotman (attrib), St Benet’s Abbey, c.1840s?, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 ins, sold Christie’s on 8 June 2006 no.111.

Another oil, also unknown in 1982 appeared at Christie’s in 2006, also attributed to Miles Edmund. This version translates Cotman’s architectural material into a bucolic, and altogether quite Dutch seventeenth century, idiom.

Circle of John Sell Cotman, 19th Century watercolour, The Old Norfolk Windmill, Unsigned 14 x 21 ins’. Sold Burstow & Hewitt, 27 September 2017, lot 93. Image source Burstow & Hewett sold lot archive

On 2017 Burstow and Hewett sold a large, but evidently faded, watercolour. This is plainly dependent on the composition published in the etching, but even allowing for the fading, is by a much less exciting hand than Cotman’s, albeit accomplished and no doubt professional.

Thomas Lound, St Benet’s Abbey, c.1820s? Watercolour, 36 x 52.5 cm. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM: 1951.235.1123.B3:F

One final example for now; although there might well be many more to add to this list of works directly related to or derived from the composition and detail of the etching. Norwich Castle Museum has a watercolour by Thomas Lound (1802-1861). He was the scion of a wealthy Norwich brewing family, who became an accomplished amateur in the Norwich School of Painters. He was only eleven when the etching was published, but became a pupil of John Sell Cotman. His watercolour attempts to individualise the subject by turning the vanes around to the west, but the view of the gateway is the same as the etching, and Cotman’s tell-tale doorway remains, besides the too-close sails and weather effect to betray its true origins.

TO BE CONTINUED: Cotman’s later works

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