Cotman and St Benet’s: Part 6; Later Works (continued)

This is the sixth in 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. In part five we began to explore Cotman’s later associations with the site, including a major watercolour of 1831. Here we continue our survey of the later work, concluding with a later composition that has hitherto received little attention.

John Sell Cotman, St Benet’s Abbey, 1832?, pencil on paper, 2 ¼ x 4 ¼ ins, V&A E.651-1925. Image courtesy of V&A

One sketch in the sequence of works from the 1820s and 1830s is a pencil drawing at the V&A.  This records a similar southerly aspect to both the 1813 etching and the 1831 watercolour, but relates directly to neither. Its viewpoint is distinct, slightly further left, so as to bring the tower wholly left of the gateway, and showing the vanes facing directly left, distinct from all the other treatments. It is also taken from a boat on the river, for there are indications of reflections in the foreground water. It is difficult to date with any certainty, but it is drawn with a soft graphite, making use of textural tone with darker strokes and points, almost like clots, distributed across the surface. The sheet is small and appears to have been detached from a sketchbook. In a very broad stylistic chronology Cotman appears to have relied more on sensitivity of line earlier in his career, and introduced more tonality as he matured. The touch here is completely masterly.


The dog and figure is put in with an almost nonchalant bravura. It also has an instantaneous sense of occasion. Birds scatter from the gatehouse and wheel in the sky. One can almost hear their chatter at our intrusion. This is Cotman at the height of his powers, and might well date from the boating visit with Mrs Gunn and his own daughter, Ann on 5 July 1832.

Mrs Gunn was Harriet, the fourth daughter of Dawson Turner. She was born in 1806, so when Cotman began supervising artistic endeavours at the Turner household in Yarmouth from 1812, she would have been six. Cotman remembered her fondly in a letter of 3 November 1841 to her father: ‘[my] old laughter-loving pupil and friendly torment’. She married the clergyman and naturalist John Gunn in 1830 and went to live at Irstead where he was rector. Cotman had accepted an invitation to visit, and stayed along with his daughter from 4-8 July (see Sydney Kitson Life of John Sell Cotman, 1937, pp.290-1). It would have been a pleasant sail of five miles from Irstead down the river Ant to St Benet’s.

[On a desktop, click on image and select ‘open in new tab’ to view full-size. Close tab to return to this page]

There are two drawings at Norwich Castle Museum, one of which Andrew Moore [1982, under no.112, n.7] suggests might have been drawn on the visit of 1832. Sadly neither is reproduced on the Norfolk Museums website, so it is impossible to form any independent view as to their position in this sequence. The first [1951.235.381] is described by Moore as ‘a view of the abbey from the edge of the Bure’. The Norfolk Museums online catalogue gives the dimensions as 160 x 338 mm, and the materials as black chalk heightened with white on buff paper. Moore describes the second [1951.235.380] as a ‘Cotmanesque view..  possibly the work of Joseph Geldert’. The catalogue gives the size as 200 x 337 mm and the materials as chalk on blue paper. It would be interesting to examine these should the opportunity come around.

[On a desktop, click on image and select ‘open in new tab’ to view full-size. Close tab to return to this page]

John Sell Cotman, St Benet’s Abbey, c.1831?, graphite on off white wove paper, 52 x 68 mm. Leeds Art Gallery, LEEAG.1949.0009.0391.

The Leeds collection includes one rough pencil study, two inches high and two and a half across, stained and spattered, of St Benet’s with its sails facing right. There are two figures in the left foreground, evidently seated by a stream. Towering clouds fill the sky to the left, and there is one dark tree at the base of the windmill to the right, with another, lighter toned, immediately beyond. The whole is surrounded by a freehand framing line. Andrew Moore in his 1982 catalogue of John Sell Cotman, under his entry for the 1831 watercolour (no.112, note7) first identified it as St Benet’s, itemised with ‘Other sketches of St Benet’s Abbey by Cotman.. Although none relates directly to this composition’.

In every version prior to the 1831 watercolour the sails of the mill are angled to the left, but this sketch compares closely to the composition of the 1831 watercolour. The present drawing shares the precise profile of the windmill, but the correspondence is strong even beyond that: The watercolour is one of Cotman’s most brilliant conceptions, especially in the way that it sets its subject against an astonishing sky. The present sketch reiterates those key elements even down to the stream and figures in the foreground.

The correspondences are systematic, but not exact, and it is a moot point as to whether the present sketch can be considered as a preparatory study, or a study after the fact of the watercolour. The latter may be the case, for the one respect in which the present drawing differs from the 1831 watercolour is in the introduction of trees at the base of the mill in front of the abbey gatehouse.

Moore says of both this composition and that of the 1831 watercolour, that Cotman ‘excercises considerable licence in his representation of the abbey for compositional effect..  A later version.. is idiosyncratically placed within a heavily wooded landscape with similar regard for actual topography.’  Some part of this contention stems from the fact that Moore is mistaken in thinking that the view here and in the 1831 watercolour is that from the north-west, whereas in fact it is from the south, but his observation about the trees seems apt. St Benets, seems never to have been anything like so arboreal as in this composition, and it is difficult to find depictions by any artist from any period that show any nearby trees at all.

Thomas Lound, St Benet’s Abbey. Image courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum
Thomas Lound, St Benet’s Abbey. Image courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum

There are, however two exceptions in the form of paintings by Thomas Lound. We have already heard about Lound in that he was a wealthy amateur artist of Norwich, a pupil of John Sell Cotman and achieved distinction in his own right as an artist of the Norwich School.  Norwich Castle Museum has two independent compositions by him of the southerly aspect of St Benet’s as seen from the River Bure, and both show trees to the right of the gatehouse. Admittedly, the trees are by no means as vigorous as they appear in the Cotman composition, but they do suggest that at least for some brief period vegetation prospered in the vicinity. The V&A sketch, however, shows none, and neither the Norfolk Museums nor ArtUK online catalogues give any indication of the date of the Thomas Lound paintings.

There is one key detail, however, that relates the Leeds composition directly to the 1831 watercolour rather than to any subsequent visit. That is the omission of the chalk wall to the left of the mill. That is a feature that occurs in every composition prior to the 1831 watercolour, but is abandoned therein.  Moreover, the style of the Leeds drawing is not that of an observational sketch, but rather of a loose, uninhibited, studio study, in which a potential composition is being explored for purely poetic possibility, and without thought of it having any audience other than that of the artist alone. The trees in the Leeds drawing suggest that it was made after the 1831 watercolour, but from memory rather than from any reference. There is a powerful current of such material flowing out of the last decade of his life, much of it small and undemonstrative, and essentially introspective rather than market-facing. The ‘finished’ results of this process are as often found in oils as watercolours.

Cotman’s House, Palace Plain, Norwich Photograph by Professor David Hill, taken 17 April 2005, 14.54

The situation in Cotman’s studio evolved significantly in the 1830s. We have thought in a previous series about the situation in the grand house on Bishop’s plain in Norwich. In 1824 Cotman set up there a grand artistic practice and drawing school in East Anglian emulation of Titian or Rembrandt. Though things never went well, he made room in the practice for his family, and his eldest son, Miles Edmund was inducted in the later 1820s. He worked as studio assistant, contributing to the Cotman brand, gradually emerging as an independent artist. He was twenty-two in 1832, and when Cotman went off to Irstead and St Benet’s in July he was trusted enough {according to Sydney Kitson’s account in his Life of John Sell Cotman, 1937, p290) to be left in charge of the studio and all the pupils.

Within the studio Cotman and his family arranged his accumulated sketches as a reference resource. The V&A online catalogue entry for the sketch of St Benet’s, above, includes the following account:

  • Sydney Kitson discussing material similar to E.638-E.731-1925 states: “It seems that Cotman, like his great contemporary Turner, never destroyed any sketch, however slight, but kept all such memoranda as material for his finished work. During his second period of residence at Norwich (1823-1834) he and his family collected these sketches together and gummed them onto sheets of rough paper, four to twenty on a sheet according to size. The words ‘in use’, in Cotman’s writing, are inscribed on the top of several of these sheets. Many of the sketches are torn from his earlier sketchbooks, and some are dated: others are on the back of any piece of paper come to hand- a clergyman’s visiting card, a request for a payment from a tradesman, or bits of trial pulls from his own etchings. Unfortunately, Cotman’s workshop was not, – as was Turner’s – kept together and bequeathed to the nation, but was dispersed after his death. These sketches probably passed to his son Miles Edmund Cotman, who died in 1858. They were then put up in lots, seventeen or eighteen sheets to a lot, and sold at auction in Norwich. Recently I have been able to study three such lots, representing about 500 sketches; while about a hundred more, gummed on similar sheets, were acquired two or three years ago by the Victoria & Albert Museum”. See ‘John Sell Cotman’ by Sydney D. Kitson, in the 7th Annual volume of Old Water-Colour’s Society Club, 1929-1930, p.1.
Leeds Cotman exhibition 2017-18. Photograph by Professor David Hill

In 1926 and 1928 Kitson bought nearly sixty of these sheets. Altogether his collection contained hundreds of sketches, many of them tiny. None of the original sheets survive today. Kitson mounted all his sketches individually, and the V&A did likewise with theirs, but Kitson kept notes of the former arrangement of his and from that we can see that the sheets grouped sketches by theme; figure, ships and boats, architecture, animals, carts and vehicles, etc. We exhibited two hundred of the Leeds sketches in 2017-18 [see here] and they are fully catalogued online here.

Cotman sketches at Leeds exhibition 2017-18. Photograph by Professor David Hill

The sheets included drawings by Miles Edmund and his brother John Joseph, and appear to have been regarded as a common resource so that the father and his family drew upon them for subjects and reference. As a result interrelationships of sketch and studio productions are no certain indication of the authorship of either.

[On a desktop, click on image and select ‘open in new tab’ to view full-size. Close tab to return to this page]

Cotman, John Sell; St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk; Norfolk Museums Service;

One issue of the Leeds sketch of St Benet’s is an oil painting at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM: 1951.235.109). Andrew Moore, in his survey of St Benet’s subjects in his 1982 catalogue of John Sell Cotman published by the Castle Museum, considers this to be an autograph work of John Sell. It is certainly a rich and impressive object that follows the pencil composition in most respects, and has some splendid detail, particularly the light-suffused glimpse through the arch at the right, and the brilliant orange glow of the trees behind the windmill. There is some exquisite colour too, the purple of the windmill contrasts vividly with the orange and emerald foliage, and the Prussian blue and turquoise tints in the foreground water are picked up effectively in hints across the middle distance. But all that notwithstanding, it does not quite have the ease, grace or bravura that one would expect of John Sell, especially in the 1830s. The trees, reeds, and foreground bushes are fussy and the sky is reticent. Compare that in the Leeds sketch, let alone in the 1831 watercolour.

[On a desktop, click on image and select ‘open in new tab’ to view full-size. Close tab to return to this page]

John Sell or Miles Edmubd Cotman, St Benet’s Abbey, Norofolk, c.1830s, watercolour 195 x 298 mm. Te Papa, National Museum of New Zealand 1955-0013-4

The same composition is repeated in a watercolour at Te Papa; The National Museum of New Zealand. Like the oil it has considerable strengths. The bold opposition of orange and green, the fine elaboration of the foreground reeds and shrubs, the sense of sequestration and the introspective detail of the solitary figure. In some ways this version improves upon the oil, the middle distance is much more elaborated and the effect of light slanting into the composition trough the branches at the right is a fine innovation. The birds wheeling in the sky are reminiscent of the V&A St Benet’s drawing, and suggest that it was also to hand in the studio. In comparison to the oil, however, the watercolour is lacking in intensity of colour, the glimpse through the arch is comparatively flat, and like the oil, the sky is undemonstrative. The little family of ducks in the right foreground is an affecting detail, but perhaps more sentimental more than poetic.

In comparison to what one might expect of John Sell Cotman in the 1830s, both oil and watercolour fall short of his vibrancy of colour, directness and gusto of means, richness and depth. Both are accomplished and directly in the Cotman idiom, but both must, rather, be the work of Cotman’s eldest son, Miles Edmund. John Sell Cotman’s later works are comparatively understudied, and there is a very great deal of work to be done to be able to separate out their individual oeuvres. Miles Edmund has attracted some scholarly interest but there is still no detailed exemplified chronology of the evolution of his work. Broadly summarised, he worked closely alongside and often directly for his father in the Norwich studio until 1834 and afterwards as assistant to his father at King’s College in London. After his father’s death in 1842 he continued the London teaching for a few years, and then returned to Norfolk to pursue an independent practice up to his own death in 1858. Throughout this time, he kept [and even expanded] the sheets of drawing studies begun by his father.  Miles Edmund seems ripe for more detailed consideration. A few years ago Geoffrey Searle published a short monograph that clearly indicates what might be possible.

Lasse Press, Norwich, 2014

It is well beyond the scope of the present article to attempt any chronology of Miles Edmund’s work, but on the whole one might think that such works as these would indicate him drawing upon his deep knowledge of his father’s work, but also tempering that with his own artistic personality, so perhaps a date in the 1840s might suit both. In this respect Andrew Moore (1982) also mentions a watercolour of St Benet’s, which he gives to Miles Edmund, at the National Gallery of Wales, Cardiff. Sadly the museum’s online catalogue does not gave any reproduction, so any opportunity to consider that in this context will have to be deferred.

It might, however, require a certain degree of emotional resilience to immerse oneself in Miles Edmund’s story, for it appears in many ways to be as affecting as that of his father. His later career seems to be one of stoic decline and decreasing recognition, whilst continuing to produce work which, in a more congenial environment, might have been accounted valuable. Patiently fishing for recognition; his details tell a wan story.


Mind you, the whole of Cotman’s posteriority seems to want attention. When I visited St Benet’s on 7 March 2017, I was impressed to find two photographers setting up on the very spot of Cotman’s view. Assuming that they, like myself, had been drawn there by the artist, I showed them the photographs of his etching that I was carrying. ‘Never heard of him’, they replied.


There are a few other Cotman St Benet’s, some not insubstantial, that I have not yet been able to weave into the main narrative. In due course I will add them here as brief appendices.

One thought on “Cotman and St Benet’s: Part 6; Later Works (continued)

  1. A model sequence of commentaries on the subject – despite Covid restrictions and no access to print rooms – it shows what can be done with diligent analysis and current internet resources.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s