John Sell Cotman: A Harbour for the Soul #5 Van Dyck Study

This is the fifth article in a series that began three years ago with a rediscovered watercolour of ‘The Student’ by John Sell Cotman. That led to the consideration of several works that embodied ambitions that Cotman had for his artistic life in Norwich, and his eventual disappointment. Here we consider a drawing that appeared on the market in April 2018, a couple of months after the completion of part 4 of this series. It dates from the early days of Cotman’s first studio in Norwich, 1806-11. Here he proposes for himself a practice like that of the great sixteenth and seventeenth century masters. In this case his role model was Sir Anthony Van Dyck.

John Sell Cotman,
Study after Van Dyck’s portrait of Caspar Gevartius, (c.1640), c.1807
Graphite, watercolour, and black conte crayon on card faced with off-white wove paper, backed with tissue and blue laid paper. The sheet trimmed to 301 x 220 mm.
Private Collection

This drawing was sold at Arthur Johnson & Sons, auctioneers of Nottingham on 14 April 2018, lot 22 as ‘Attributed to John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), head of a man, pencil and pastel, framed’. Its quality appears to have been obscured by its presentation. It was offered in a rather battered black frame beneath an ill-fitting, warped and acid-eaten card mount. The original occupant of the frame appears to have been a London County Council certificate of Scriptural Knowledge issued in 1917 to an E Clarke of Wordsworth Road School. The school was in the north London suburb of Stoke Newington, and the Clarke family’s address is written on the back of the certificate, 36 Spencer Road. The drawing was no doubt further discounted by the fact that Cotman is not at all known amongst potential collectors for figure subjects, and this area of his work is something of a desert for scholars and collectors alike. These articles are an attempt to remedy that, but suffice it to say that the lot was knocked down for a price that probably does a disservice to the certificate, let alone the drawing.

I removed it from its frame on 30 July 2018. Here are my notes and photographs:

The frame was sealed with a layer of brown wrapping paper pasted to the stretcher. This was found torn, rubbed and discoloured, and already detached in several places.  The sheet carries an inscription in black ink: ‘John Sell Cotman 1782-1842/ Head of a Man [several words abraded]/ Exhibited 1806 of [?as] 20 portraits [several words abraded].

The abrasion is so severe as to have worn quite through the paper in places. Whether this amounts to a deliberate erasure, or accidental damage is not clear. The stretcher retained one ring for a picture wire at its left side. Removal of the backing sheet revealed that it had a decorative lining of fine striped tissue. It resembles the kind of paper that high-class stores would have used for wrapping goods in the 1960s.

Removal of the backing paper revealed several small panel pins securing the artwork and its backing within the frame. With these removed, the backing was found to consist of:

a) A sheet of heavily-browned sheet of thin card inscribed top left in graphite: ‘?6 6 ‘52/ Clark/ 36 Spencer Road/ 2 frames 5 & 6’.

Turning over revealed on the recto a pass certificate for London County Council’s examination in Scripture knowledge, issued to E Clarke of Wordsworth Road School in 1917.

And beneath that was:

b) A piece of brown card. This carried the marks of panel pins all round, and was presumably the previous backboard.

And with that removed the back of the drawing was revealed, laid loose in the frame.

The drawing is somewhat narrower than the frame opening, although of a similar height. The back consists of a sheet of blue laid paper pasted at the four corners to the actual support of the drawing. At the top edge is a short mark left by an adhesive tape, presumably from some previous mounting of the drawing. The blue backing sheet is inscribed in graphite ‘John Sell Cotman/ Cf Hannah Chapman Gurney/ album’

The drawing itself appears to have survived in clean condition. The drawing is on a sheet of off-white Whatman-type wove paper bonded onto a lightweight card. The verso of the card, so far as can be ascertained without removing the blue paper, is covered in a thin tissue, somewhat creased.

Finally, removal of the drawing from the frame reveals a browned card mat, fitted loosely within the frame. This, it has to be said, is a very shabby piece of work. First of all, the fit within the frame is very approximate, and the outside edge of the mat irregularly cut, possibly with scissors, to its present size. Secondly the mat was placed with the bevel to the inside. It appears that the mat must have been reused from somewhere else entirely, was already discoloured on the outside, and was cut down and reversed.

There are several inferences that might be drawn. First of all it is plain that the frame and the Cotman have been brought together in something of a bodge. The frame seems to have been made for the Clarke named in the certificate, and given how well the certificate fits the frame, and the unexeptional quality of the frame itself, that the frame was made for the certificate. The certificate is in excellent condition – at least the face of it, so it seems very likely that the frame was made shortly after the certificate was presented in 1917.  Quite when it was requisitioned to house the Cotman is unclear, but the best one might say of it, is that the job looks to have done cheaply. To be fair, however, the general style of the frame is not inappropriate, and when the mat and sealing paper were fresh, the ensemble would have made a reasonably presentable object. In any case we can conclude that the frame and the drawing have no substantive relation and the drawing can be re-presented to modern conservation standards.

Sold under the title of ‘Head of a Man’ in 2018, we can here add more specific detail. The subject can be identified as a portrait of Gaspar Gevartius (1593-1666). Called Jan Caspar Gevaerts in his native Flemish, he was an internationally-renowned literary scholar, philologist, historian and lawyer. He studied Liberal Arts at the University of Louvain and spent time in The Hague, Paris and Douai before settling in Antwerp in 1621, rising to hold high office in the city government and to serve as councillor of state and historiographer royal to both Philip IV of Spain and the Emperor Ferdinand III. He became a great friend of Rubens, who painted his portrait (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp). He was also painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck and the original painting is in the Buccleugh and Queensbury collection at Boughton, Northamptonshire. That portrait was engraved by Paulus Potter in a series of portraits of famous figures known as The Iconography of Van Dyck. The British Museum has a copy of the engraving.

Paulus Pontus after Anthony Van Dyck, Portrait of Gaspar Gevaerts, HL. Before 1641. Engraving
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The inscription on the backing sheet (‘John Sell Cotman 1782-1842/ Head of a Man [several words abraded]/ Exhibited 1806 of [?as] 20 portraits [several words abraded]) was presumably added when the frame was requisitioned to house the drawing. In 1806 Cotman exhibited the results of his 1805 visit to Yorkshire at the Royal Academy, and then removed from London to Norwich. In 1807 he exhibited 20 works at the Norwich Society of Artists, including six portraits and a ‘Sketch after Vandyke’. At the exhibition of 1808 he described himself as a ‘Portrait-Painter’, and exhibited 67 works, including thirteen portraits.

The 1807 exhibit, ‘Sketch after Vandyck’ suggests a date for the present drawing, and raises the possibility that it might actually be identifiable as the exhibit. There are, however two other candidates, which we will examine in due course.

First, however we ought to give a little more thought to the general context. In 1806 Cotman removed from London back to his native Norwich. The circumstances and motives of this move have occasioned some interest. Sydney Kitson gives the primary account in his Life of John Sell Cotman (1937) and I wondered about it in my 2005 book, Cotman in the North.  Briefly, after a promising few years in London, 1806 seems to have been something of a disaster. In 1804 and 1805 he developed a distinctively reductive style of pure watercolour. The immediate products of this are now considered among the finest achievements in the history of the medium, but their virtues were invisible to the contemporary public. He sold little if anything from the Royal Academy in 1806, was blackballed from admission as a member of the Society of Painters in Watercolour and seems to have drawn the conclusion that his only chance of enjoying any decent quality of life lay in Norwich.

Henry E. Humphris
Front of John Sell Cotman’s House, St Andrew’s, Norwich, 1890
Watercolour, 35.5 (height) 51.1 (width)
Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 2005.328.1

Up to a point he was obviously right about the latter. His living expenses in London would go much further in Norwich. So he set himself up in what appears to have been a rather beautiful old house in Luckett’s Court, off Wymer Street in the heart of the city, and embarked on a plan to open a school. He wrote to his patron Dawson Turner:

In consequence of advice from several of my friends in Norwich I have taken a house in Wymer Street, for the purpose of opening a School of Drawing and Design. It will give me the opportunity of turning myself about during my stay, and studying oil painting, which of late I have done but little, having been engaged too much in other things. My reason for troubling you with this, Sir, is this; for in the last fortnight after Christmas I shall open my Rooms as an Exhibition for about a fortnight. I am aware of the daring of such a scheme, and I hope the public will consider it with candour, and that it is the effort of but an individual.’

There are quite a few inferences to be drawn from this. First, that he appears to have got into financial difficulty in London, and needed to turn things around. Secondly, that the planned stay was temporary, and thirdly, and perhaps importantly for the inscription on the backing sheet of the frame, that there was an exhibition in 1806 in which this drawing might have appeared.

In fact this exhibition was a quite considerable affair: He first announced the intention in an advertisement in the Norwich Mercury for 20 December: The text was given by Andrew Moore in his 1982 book, John Sell Cotman 1782-1842, published by Norfolk Museums Service (p.41):


For Painting in Water Colours & for Design


RESPECTFULLY informs his Friends, and the Inhabitants of Norwich in general, that he has taken a house in Wymer Street (near the Public Library) for the accommodation of those Ladies and Gentlemen who may favour him by becoming his pupils.

That the public may be enabled to form an accurate estimate of his merit and of his claim to their patronage, he has been advised to open an Exhibition of his works; a scheme almost too daring for an individual, did not he flatter himself that the labours of seven years might justify him in the attempt.

The Exhibition (which opens on Monday, the 29th of December,) will consist of his COLOURED SKETCHES, SKETCHES in LIGHT & SHADE, and in PENCIL, and of a few FINISHED DRAWINGS, which are be on sale.

Admittance by catalogue, one shilling

He repeated the advertisement two days before the exhibition opened in the Norfolk Chronicle of 27 December 1806. The wording is exactly the same except for some small changes at the end that indicate some significant developments in his thinking: He now said: ‘The Exhibition will consist of upwards of Four Hundred Drawings. Admittance One Shilling.—Catalogues Sixpence’.

Cotman appears to have been exhibiting pretty much his entire back catalogue. It would be wonderful to trace and publish a copy of the catalogue. Quite how he managed to display it all is unknown, but in 2015 Dr Sarah Moulden attempted to give an idea in a display at Norwich Castle Museum. It seems a shame that not more of this display has found some more permanent record except for brief mentions in the East Anglia Art Fund’s website and that of the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia.

In the same paper on 10 January 1807 he issued a slightly amended version, that shows that the number had now risen to five hundred items!:


For Painting in Water Colours & for Design


RESPECTFULLY informs his Friends, and the Inhabitants of Norwich in general, that he has taken a house in Wymer Street (near the Public Library) for the accommodation of those Ladies and Gentlemen who may favour him by becoming his pupils.

That the public may be enabled to form an accurate estimate of his merit and of his claim to their patronage, he has been advised to open an Exhibition of his works; a scheme almost too daring for an individual, did not he flatter himself that the labours of seven years might justify him in the attempt.

The Exhibition consists of 500 DRAWINGS, COLOURED SKETCHES, SKETCHES in LIGHT and SHADE, and in PENCIL. A few FINISHED DRAWINGS, are on sale.

J.S.C will commence his instructions on Monday, January 19th 1807.

Terms of Teaching,

In the Academy by the Quarter, £2.2s

Four Private Lessons – – £1.1s

It seems a shame that even the local papers do not seem to have thought worth reviewing what Sarah Moulden  describes in the Sainsbury Centre’s article as ‘one of the largest solo shows ever to have been staged by a British artist, making it a key event not only in Cotman’s own career but in the history of British exhibition culture.’

If anything, the event encouraged him to shift the focus his efforts towards portraiture, for when he submitted twenty works to the 1807 exhibition of the Norwich Society of Artists, apart from no.105 ‘Sketch after Vandyck’ five others were portraits, and it appears that he was determined to develop a practice in that genre. Van Dyck was an extremely impressive claim as an antecedent and ambition, and one perhaps flattering to the burghers and worthies of Norfolk, already familiar with the distinguished cultural and historical achievements of their trading partners across the North Sea. Unfortunately, although Norwich and the county of Norfolk had cultural depth and history aplenty, its trade, especially with Europe was in decline, and it had no great University or Court to drive cultural and intellectual activity. Despite that he does seem to have turned himself around, sufficiently to put down roots, to marry in 1809, start his family in 1810 and to observe in 1811 of metropolitan life: ‘Look at all the first Landscape professors, how do they life? In filth and dirt to me comfortless.. [in the] din, filth and dungeon-like light of London – no one pure smell. The country, wife, children and old friends for happiness. If these can’t make you so, despair.’

Besides the present drawing, Cotman made at least two other, similar, studies. The best-known is the ‘Head of a man in Van Dyck dress’ at the British Museum, London.

John Sell Cotman
Study after Van Dyck’s portrait of Hendrick van Balen, (c.1640), c.1807
Called ‘Head of a man in Van Dyck dress’
Graphite with watercolour, 311 x 209 mm
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum’s online catalogue gives an extended commentary for this work

This drawing has been associated with Cotman’s decision to leave London and return to Norwich in 1806 in order to open a drawing school (see A. Holcomb, ‘John Sell Cotman’, 1978, pp.11-2). Thought to be ‘Sketch after Vandyke’, no. 105 in the 1807 Norwich Society of Artists exhibition. Cotman showed a number of portraits at this and the two subsequent exhibitions, styling himself as ‘portrait painter’ in the in 1808 and 1809 catalogues. This was a deliberate attempt to diversify his artistic practice following his failure to establish a viable career in the capital, and he also began to exhibit works in oil in this period. These strategies were unsuccessful, however, and from 1810 he had returned to landscape watercolours and was no longer showing portraits or oils at the Norwich exhibitions.
In 1978, there was a similar Van Dyck head by Cotman in an album in a private collection, and this might be the same work as ‘A cavalier – after Van Dyck’ at Sotheby’s, lot 212, 21 Mar 2002. Both the album and the drawing offered at auction were owned by Hannah Chapman Gurney (1787-1850), daughter of the Norwich banker, Joseph Gurney. An amateur artist, Hannah Gurney recorded meeting Cotman in 1804 in her diary and receiving drawing lessons from him in 1807. Cotman probably provided her with the portrait after Van Dyck as a drawing-copy, and 1902,0514.15 may have served a similar purpose in his teaching practice. The album and Hannah Gurney’s association with Cotman are described in a letter in the dossier. The letter also proposes an alternative date for 1902,0514.15, of late 1804 to early 1805, based upon the chronological arrangement of the album.

Surprisingly, however, it does not identify Cotman’s specific source, also from Van Dyck’s Iconography.

Paulus Pontus after Anthony Van Dyck, Portrait of Hendrick van Balen, HL. Before 1641. Engraving
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The sitter is Hendrick van Balen the Elder (1573-1632) or in the Latin Henricus van Baelen, who was an important painter of religious subjects in Antwerp at the same time as Rubens, and was one of the teachers of Van Dyck. He specialised in intensely coloured and highly detailed cabinet pictures, many painted on copper, of mythological and allegorical scenes. He ran a very successful family workshop and school, and was held in extremely high regard, serving from 1612 as Dean of the Guild of Romanists. The very epitome, one might say, of everything Cotman aspired to achieve in Norwich.

John Sell Cotman
Study after Van Dyck’s portrait of Erycius Puteanus, (c.1640), c.1807
Called ‘A Cavalier – after Van Dyck’
Graphite and wash 295 x 220 mm, 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 in
Sold Sotheby’s, 21 March 2002, lot 212

A third member of this small group was sold at Sotheby’s, 21 March 2002, lot 212 as ‘A Cavalier – after Van Dyck’.  This too, may now be identified as a study from one of the portraits in Van Dyck’s Iconography.

Pieter de Jode II after Anthony van Dyck
Portrait of Erycius Puteanus, half-length; third state with publisher’s address; after Anthony van Dyck Engraving
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The sitter in this case can here be identified as Erycius Puteanus (1574-1646), or Hendrick van den Putte in his native Flemish. He was another prominent Low Countries humanist and scholar. He worked in many places including, Dordrecht, Cologne, Leuven and Milan, teaching as a Professor at the University of Leuven for forty years. He was historiographer to Philip III of Spain, and the author of numerous works, including a treatise on music.

When this drawing appeared at Sotheby’s in 2002 the provenance was given as Hannah Chapman Gurney. The BM commentary above records an album of hers, seen in 1978, that contained one of Cotman’s Van Dyck studies, and the inference is that the Sotheby’s drawing must be identifiable with that. Certainly the inscription on the blue backing sheet of the present drawing implies that the Gurney drawing was a distinct item. Hannah Chapman Gurney was born in Norwich in 1787, the daughter of a Norwich banker. The British Museum’s commentary mentions a journal that records that she met Cotman in 1804 and took lessons from him in 1807, when she was twenty. The Van Dyck portrait might have been one of the things that she studied at the new school in Wymer Street.

Van Dyck began the series of portraits that became the Iconography between his arrival in Antwerp in 1627 and his departure for England in 1632. It was continued by various engravers and a hundred plates had been completed by the 1640s. They record princes, statesmen, soldiers, scholars and artists, and are one of the finest panoramas of civil life in the Low Countries in the early seventeenth century. Readers will find further information on the sites of the Frick and Fitzwilliam Museums, as well as

Whether Cotman in 1807 could afford to buy examples seems doubtful, but he would certainly have been able to see examples in the collections of his patrons. He must have been deeply impressed by the intellectual depth and richness of Flemish, and especially Antwerpian culture. How much he must have hoped that Norwich might emulate it.

During his career Cotman certainly managed to collect numerous examples of his own. The sale of his effects in 1834 as recorded in a typed transcription in the Sydney Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery, included numerous lots of Van Dyck portrait etchings, including Day 2 lots 31-34 each of ‘Six portraits, after Vandyck (fine)’ and Day 3  lots 29-31 each ‘Six portraits, after Vandyck (fine)’  and lot 32 ‘Four ditto’, a total of forty-six prints. The whole eight lots fetched only £4.3.6, or less than 2/- per print.

Van Dyck was revered among the greatest of portraitists, and for Cotman to advertise having studied him, would suggest the ability to bring learning and gravitas to his treatment of prospective Norwich subjects. The Flemish master represented everything Cotman aspired to become in Norwich, and his subjects the kind of customers that might recognise his talents. Van Dyck, it should be admitted, excelled in one of the most demanding and discriminating environments of figure draftsmanship and portraiture in the entire history of art.

It will not take the observant reader long to see how much more in this genre Cotman had to learn. Perhaps it is unfair to put him side by side with Van Dyck. Their times and cultures had different psychospheres. By themselves, Cotman’s drawings are lively, bold, deft and demonstrative, and the appeal that they make to a Romantic, culturally flamboyant style of individuation must have seemed optimistic and progressive in a country still deeply at war. Cotman remained committed throughout his career to the sense of cultural bien-etre that the portraits project. The best one might say of his context, however, or of his clientele is that neither gave him anything like the encouragement or the support on which he might have truly flourished.

2 thoughts on “John Sell Cotman: A Harbour for the Soul #5 Van Dyck Study

  1. Have you asked Sarah Moulden about the 1806 Norwich exhibition? – her show at Norwich in 2015 (based on her UEA PhD research) was titled “Almost too daring for an individual”: John Sell Cotman’s One Man Show – so she might have unearthed some material that would add to your studies. She gave a talk in 2013 : Sarah Moulden (University of East Anglia and Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery), “turning myself about”: John Sell Cotman returns to Norwich – Oxford (Association of Art Historians Student Summer Symposium). She was working at Eltham Palace not so long ago.

  2. Thanks, Jeremy, for alerting me to this. I am following it up immediately. It does sound very much as if Dr Moulden (now at the NPG) worked from a complete list of the exhibits. Over 500 items according to the publicity for the exhibition!!

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