John Sell Cotman: A Harbour for the Soul #6 Musketeer after Jacob De Gheyn

This is the sixth in a series of articles that explores a group of works that reflect John Sell Cotman’s ambitions for his artistic life in Norwich. Here we consider a drawing that appeared on the market in March 2021. It dates from the early days of Cotman’s second attempt to establish a successful studio in Norwich, 1824-34. We considered his first attempt in part five. That was nearly twenty years earlier but his imagination still swirled with ideas of emulating the great sixteenth and seventeenth century masters.


A Dutch Musketeer after Jacob de Gheyn’s, Wapenhandelinghe, 1607-8. Called ‘An arquabusier [sic] ‘ and ‘An Arquebusier’, c.1825
Graphite and watercolour on paper, 295 x 224 mm, 11 9/16  x 8 13/16 ins
Private Collection

The occasion of this article is the recent appearance of a sensitive graphite and watercolour studio drawing an ornately-costumed musketeer. It was sold at Chiswick Auctions, London, 30 March 2021, lot 368 as John Sell Cotman (British 1782-1842) ‘An arquabusier’. The subject wears doublet and breeches together with stockings and shoes decorated with ribbon, and waves a brimmed hat decorated with ostrich feathers. With his left hand he holds his musket across his body resting on a stand, together with, between his fingers, a burning cord fuse, lit at both ends. A bandolier is slung across his chest hung with various bottles and spare fuses, whilst a sword hangs from his left hip. His right hand is free to raise his hat towards the viewer in salute. Behind him is the wall of a building, and beyond an open landscape leading to blue hills

As sold it was presented framed in a rubbed-gilt-effect moulding, and triple-mounted on good quality mounting board, decorated with a delicate blue wash-line surrounded by a line of gilding.

A label on the back documents the mounting work to Fine Framing of Alton, Hampshire, and dates it to 16 December 1999.

One can hardly say that it looked uncared-for, or unvalued. Indeed the main label on the back is that of an exhibition of the now long-established dealer, Nicholas Bowlby.

The label records that the watercolour was exhibited at the seminal exhibition of John Sell Cotman held at the Tate in 1922.

Quite how, then, it fell well short of an estimate that itself was only a fraction of the price asked more than twenty years ago, wants consideration. As we have already seen in previous instalments of this series, figure subjects seem at present to stand completely outside the pale of what the market understands in relation to Cotman.

The subject was copied from Jacob de Gheyn’s, ‘Wapenhandelinghe van Roers Musquetten ende Spiessen’, published in The Hague in 1607. It is one of eight such studies currently known to Cotman scholarship. I first became interested in these when writing the online catalogue of the Leeds Cotman collection. Cotman’s biographer, Sydney Kitson, bought three together from the Norwich dealers Boswell’s in 1930 and bequeathed them to Leeds Art Gallery. A fourth example was added to the Leeds collection by the gift of Sydney Kitson’s nephew, Robert Hawthorn Kitson in 1945. Norwich Castle Museum has another: The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford another, and there is a final pencil drawing in a private collection. These will be considered in part 7 of this series.

De Gheyn’s book was commissioned in 1597 by Count Jan van Nassau Siegen and published in The Hague in 1607 with a dedication to Maurits, Prince of Orange. A contemporary English edition gives the title as ‘The Exercise of Arms For Calivers, Muskets, and Pikes’, a French edition as ‘Maniement d’armes, d’arquebuses, mousquetz et piques‘ and a German edition as ‘Waffenhandlung von den Roren, Musquetten undt Spiessen’. The complete edition consists of a title page and 116 plates arranged in three series. The figures have sometimes been identified as Spanish, but the source shows them actually to be Dutch who were at war with the Spanish at the time of publication. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Spanish styles influenced many countries, but the drill routines demonstrated in the Wapenhandelinghe established the Dutch army at this time as the most disciplined in Europe, and the practices were adopted widely

The entire group appears to belong to the period after John Sell Cotman’s removal with his family from Yarmouth to Norwich in late 1823. In 1825 Cotman’s eldest son, Miles Edmund Cotman, then aged fifteen, exhibited four studies, all presumably from the Wapenhandlinghe, at the Norwich Society of Artists; no.119 ‘An Arquebusier of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, no.128 ‘A Bandoleer of the Reign of Elizabeth’ and two more under the latter title, nos. 136 and 142. This raises the obvious possibility that some or all of Miles Edmund’s exhibits might be amongst the eight known examples. We will have to consider this in some detail in what follows.

Cotman’s house in St Martin’s Palace Plain, Norwich Photograph by David Hill, taken 7 April 2005, 14.54 This is one of the best-situated dwellings in the centre of Norwich. Cotman lived here for ten years, 1824-1834, but never could properly afford it.

During this period Cotman established a grand new studio and drawing school in a large house in the Bishop’s Plain. That has been the theme of the previous parts of this series. Prints from the Wapenhandelinghe must have been included amongst the references that he amassed in the studio to inform his practice and that of his students. But thoughts of sixteenth century art and society played a more general role in Cotman’s aspirations for the new practice on the Bishop’s Plain in Norwich.

This whole episode of Cotman’s life would repay extended study, but we may note here that throughout his career, Cotman felt the need to feed his practice through acquisitions, including books, prints, furniture and even armour. The new house licensed an increased scale of operations and he became over-extended. He was finally forced to auction off many of his treasures in a house sale when he moved to London to take up his position as Master of Drawing at King’s College School in 1834.

A volume containing transcripts of the catalogues of Cotman’s sales is in the Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery. Frustratingly the ‘Wapenhandelinghe’ does not appear by name in the catalogue of that sale, but the first day’s sale on 10 September 1834 included two lots of prints ‘Mounted on drawing paper, and half-bound in volumes’, nos. 72  ‘Swiss, German and French costumes, 50 coloured plates’ and 73. A collection of Swiss costumes, beautifully finished. Military costumes and antique dresses, 43 plates’ that might have contained the originals of these studies. As it transpired the first lot fetched 2 shillings, and the second failed to sell. It may be assumed that Cotman paid goodly sums to acquire them. Original coloured Wapenhandelinghe prints are now valuable. A fine early -coloured copy was shown at the Amsterdam Antiquarian Book Fair in 2016 priced at E90,000, and more recently a fine uncoloured copy was sold at Sotheby’s on 19 November 2019 lot 218 for £6250 and a late-coloured copy of the 1608 French edition sold at Bonhams 31 March 2021, lot 24, for £16500.

The finest edition is that now at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. This copy was hand-coloured by the artist and presented to Maurits, Prince of Orange. The two illustrations already given are from that source, and the full set can be explored online. For the purposes of comparison, however, it is probably best that we put the present drawing alongside an uncoloured print of De Gheyn.

Perhaps the first observation to make of the comparison is that the registration of one upon the other is exact. The watercolour must have been traced from the De Gheyn. There are some small variations, the most obvious is in the soldier’s right arm, where the watercolour considerably extends the forearm.

However similar the design, the overall effect is completely different.  De Gheyn was schooled in probably the most exacting standards of figure drawing in the history of art. His generation was measured against Michelangelo and its leading exponents were Rubens and Caravaggio. De Gheyn’s engraving is a masterpiece of anatomic and volumetric understanding of the figure.

The elbow of the original is a tour de force of physique. There are many more subtle superiorities. De Gheyn’s buttons suggest proper volume and weight, the weight of the strap on the left shoulder of the bandolier is better expressed in the original, the line of the buttock at the left is not so well expressed in the watercolour, and the complex play of the gun’s shadow over the bandolier and its charges is avoided altogether.

Comparison with the De Gheyn coloured version at the Rijksmuseum shows that the dress is not so well understood. The soldier wears a [sleeveless] jerkin over a doublet and a shirt. Critical eyes could probably find many other departures, but the most obvious sign of inexperience is in the treatment of the head.

The draftsmanship of the watercolour is nonetheless beautiful, outstanding in terms of control and sensitive care. The application of colour is equally fine.

As we saw in the previous instalment, however, John Sell Cotman was already a long way beyond this in terms of gusto and confidence when he made his studies of Van Dyck’s portraits in 1807.  By the mid 1820s his hand had another near twenty years of depth and maturity. Rather then, we must instead give this to Miles Edmund Cotman. The re-attribution requires our acknowledgement that scholars accepted its attribution to John Sell Cotman at the Tate 1922 exhibition, and also makes one wish to know more about its lender, Mr W. E. Hanwell, and by what route it descended to his possession. It is fine work, certainly, rich and harmonious and it is a stretch to conceive that it might be the work of a fifteen year old. But it is not completely beyond the the capabilities of an exceptional teenager. It is salutary to see what some of today’s young artists can achieve, and Miles Edmund had the great advantage of being brought up in the household of one of the best draftsmen and watercolourists of his generation.

John Sell Cotman Portrait of Miles Edmund Cotman, c.1831 Black chalk, heightened with white, touched with red chalk, on grey paper, 190 x 140 mm London, British Museum, 1885,1010.4 (as John Sell Cotman by Milels Edmund).

Its interest is possibly increased by an attribution to the son rather than the father, for it opens a window directly into Cotman’s new drawing school at the Bishop’s Plain in Norwich, and over the shoulder of its most important pupil. Miles Edmund Cotman turned fourteen just after the family removed to their new premises. . He had been schooled with various masters in Yarmouth, and and had reached the stage where he was ready for Latin Schooling or an apprenticeship. We can easily imagine that Cotman might have fancied that with a family assistant he might begin to create a studio school like that of Rubens or Rembrandt and by immersing his protégée in the work of a Golden Age they might learn together how to realise such times in Norwich.. It is not hard to imagine also that the father would be especially proud of his son’s achievements and delighted to help mount and frame his productions for exhibition. The decision to take Miles Edmund into the studio seems to have been made before they removed from Yarmouth, for in 1823 Miles Edmund showed two exhibits at the Norwich Society of Artists, no.165 ‘A pencil drawing’ and no.167 ‘Summer House on the River Waveney – Pencil drawing’. In 1824 he showed no.192 ‘View on the River Sarthe at Alencon’ and in 1825 the group of four soldiers including an Arquebusier and three Bandoliers, plus no. 131 ‘Boats’ and no.132 ‘A study’. The degree of overall finish in the present example certainly suggests that it might well have been one of the exhibits of 1825.

One of the drawing’s strongest characteristics is its sense of close attention and immersion: A whole world has opened, full of arcane knowledge, mechanisms, discipline and skill-honing.

The Earl of Manchester’s Regiment explain musket firing (see video below)

Not many people these days know much about firing a musket, or about a matchlock mechanism. The notable exceptions being period re-enacters, who are not only well-informed, but usually completely immersive in their interest. The Earl of Manchester’s Regiment of Foote have a splendid website including a video explaining the whole procedure, and one of the specialised outlets that caters for historical re-enactment has an excellent replica and explanation of the bandolier.

De Gheyn tells us that in  plate 38, copied here, the musketeer ‘standing sentenell, shall hold before hym the Musket in the rest, so that he (having the Musket in balance) maye governe the same with the left hand onely, and have free the right hand, as this figure sheweth.’ It is striking how exactly the modern re-enacters follow De Gheyn’s routine.

Skill in practice requires repeated exercise, and perfection an exacting taskmaster. In many ways De Gheyn’s Wapenhandelinghe was a splendid exemplar for the mastering of any arcane skill, knowledge or practice. For Miles Edmund Cotman, his study of De Gheyn’s engraving represented a splendid manifesto. He is learning to present arms on the field of art. His aspiration is to splendid style. His equipment, though, requires dexterity of handling, and although prone to damp squibs, when brought together successfully delivers devastating results, albeit at some personal cost and risk.

TO BE CONTINUED: More Musketeers

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