Cotman and St Benet’s: Part 5; Later Works

This is the fifth of a series of articles exploring Cotman’s association with St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk. In Part 1 and Part 2 we considered Cotman’s early treatments of the subject, in part 3 an etching published in 1813 and in part 4 works closely related to the etching. Here we turn our attention to Cotman’s later treatments of the subject, which include a masterpiece that surpasses even the etching.

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk, from the west , c.1808Graphite and watercolour on white wove paper, 282 x 224 mmLiverpool, Walker Art Gallery: From the Lady Lever Art Gallery collections (LL 3946)Image courtesy of National Galleries on Merseyside.To see this image in the NGM’s own website, click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:

There are a few fixed points in Cotman’s later career that connect him with St Benet’s. The first is in 1824 when Cotman exhibited a composition at the Norwich Society of Artists as no. 179 as ‘St Benet’s Abbey Gate and Mill* [specimens from the folios which Mr Cotman dedicates entirely to the use of his pupils]’. The identity of this remains uncertain: It is not even clear whether the work is a pencil drawing or a watercolour. The principal candidate is the watercolour at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, since that does bear the number ‘1276’ which indicates that it served time in Cotman’s drawing-school portfolios. The numerical sequence of Cotman’s drawings might be a fruitful line of scholarly enquiry. Sydney Kitson attempted a collation of the numbers in a card index which he gave with many other Cotman papers to Leeds Art Gallery. It is kept at the gallery with an extensive variety of archival materials that Kitson developed as part of his research.

Reboxing Sydney Kitson’s Cotman archive, Leeds Art Gallery, 2017. Photograph by Professor David Hill

We looked at the card index when working on our 2017 catalogue of the Leeds Cotmans and associated archival material, but funding ran out before we were able to give it proper consideration. I can glean a couple of things from my notes. Firstly the numbers do not [by any means] correlate exactly with the chronology of the works. There are some works in the sequence with numbers below 1276 that may be dated to the early 1820s. It seem likely that the numerical sequence including the Lady  Lever watercolour was drawn up about 1823-4 when Cotman removed back to Norwich from Great Yarmouth to start up a new artistic practice and drawing-school. The exhibit at Norwich Society of Artists was one of several from the Drawing School portfolios, presumably designed to promote his new venture.

1813 etching
John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk, 1831 Watercolour with paste medium on white wove paper watermarked ‘J Whatman 1830’, 320 mm x 470 mm Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM: 1947.217.211 : F Image source Wikimedia

The second fixed point is 1831, when Cotman dated a major watercolour at Norwich Castle Museum. Cotman returns to the subject of the 1813 etching and reconceives the subject in such terms of intense colour and under an extraordinary sky that it must be numbered amongst the most important achievements of his later career.

The most detailed published commentary on this watercolour is that by Andrew Moore in his Norwich Castle Museum catalogue of John Sell Cotman published in 1982, where listed as no.112. Moore, however, says that Cotman’s view in this case is from the north-west, a different viewpoint to the 1813 etching. This does not seem to be the case. In fact, the two are taken from exactly the same southerly angle on the gatehouse, but the chalk wall to the left of the previous compositions has been omitted here in order to open up the plain. Gone, too are the wherry sails indicating the previously imagined proximity of the River Ant. Finally, the vanes are turned to the right through ninety degrees to the north-east. The sails themselves also look rather more modern and in better repair than the rickety old simple sails figured in the etching.

1813 etching detail (flipped for comparison)

Moore says that the present work is ‘removed in both concept and execution of the earlier archaeological work of Cotman’s Yarmouth years’. That is certainly true in general of Cotman’s architectural work of that time but the etching of St Benet’s is the exception that proves the rule. It has a degree of Romantic affect that sets it quite apart from the majority of the Norfolk Antiquities plates, and brings it very much into the same territory as the watercolour.

The turning pole is different to that shown in the earlier depictions. This arrangement is broadly that of a hay-rake, and lacks the long lateral spars springing from low down and attaching to spurs either side of the centre of the cap. Windmills require a lot of maintenance, and the St Benet’s of 1813 appears then to have been in need of serious attention. It is possible that it enjoyed an extensive refit in the interval.

Another development is the group of figures on the foreground bank. They must be a hardy bunch, out here on the marsh in such changeable conditions. It reminds me of a Spring day, much like today [13 March 2021] as I look out of the window, alternately buffeted by violent squalls and gusts, and then irradiated by brilliant sunlight. This group appear to be eel fishing in the stream, withtheir baskets and what appears to be a small wooden craft, collected about them.

John Sell Cotman, Eel Drogue, pencil on paper 75 x 110 mm. Leeds Art Gallery, LEEAG.1949.0009.0211

Leeds Art Gallery has a pencil sketch of two such craft, one of which (lower right) almost exactly corresponds with that in the watercolour. The mount of the Leeds drawing has been inscribed ‘Eel drogue’. I have not managed to discover how such a device might have been used in practice. Either way, their endeavours do not appear to be yielding much success. The men give off an air of dejection and discomfort.

The key characteristics of the 1831 watercolour, however are its extraordinary bold technique with swirling masses of heightened colour. About 1829-30 Cotman adopted a new process for painting in watercolour, mixing his pigments with a starch gel. On a good surface, this delivered exceptional instantaneity in the brush marks which animates the whole composition with painterly energy. Heaven knows what the picture-buying public made of it. Cotman appears to have been battling against contrary winds through most of the 1820s and 1830s, and very many of his works of this time sublimate a sense of desolation in his own situation. It may, however, be significant that this watercolour does appear to have found a buyer. There is no record of it being exhibited by Cotman, and no record of it at all before it was consigned to Christie’s in 1904 by C. H. T. Hawkins of 10 Portland Place, London. It would be interesting to discover more of its route of descent.

A third, and final fixed point occurs in 1832 when on 5 July Cotman visited St Benet’s by boat in the company of Mrs Gunn (one of Dawson Turner’s daughters) and his own daughter, Ann. It seems likely that some sketching occurred on this occasion, but no drawings can be related to this visit with certainty. It is also possible that Cotman made a visit to the site sometime prior to 1831 watercolour. A few sketches survive to us, together with some significant, but seriously understudied studio work. In the next part I will attempt in to arrange what remains in a putative chronological order.


2 thoughts on “Cotman and St Benet’s: Part 5; Later Works

  1. I have an oil that has been in my family for 60 years to my knowledge which is almost identical to the one sold in 2006. It has an old attribution to John Tennant on the back but that could be simply a dealers thought at that time. I am happy to email a photo to you for reference if you are interested.

    Kind Regards,
    Justin Bennett

    1. Dear Justin,
      Thank you for sending the image of your painting. As you say, it’s certainly a version of that sold at Christie’s 8 June 2006 lot 111.

      How do this dimensions compare?

      From the image I would have to say that your is perhaps more broadly painted than the Christie’s version. I do also have to say that whilst Christie’s attribution of theirs to Miles Edmund Cotman seemed reasonable, I would have to say that it is far from proven.

      I would, however, reaffirm my main contention that it is derived from the Cotman etching, so could actually be by anyone. I don’t know anything about John Tennant, I’m afraid, but from a quick Google, he looks to be a capable painter, and obviously influenced somewhat by Cotman.

      All best wishes – for the coming New Year as well!

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