John Sell Cotman: A Harbour for the Soul #7 More Musketeers

This is the seventh in a series of articles that explores a group of works that reflect John Sell Cotman’s ambitions for his artistic life in Norwich. In part 6 we considered a drawing that appeared on the market in March 2021.  He we continue that theme by examining the full troop of musketeers, arquebusiers and pikemen that marched alongside through Cotman’s imagination.


Musketeer, after Jacob de Gheyn, c.1825
Watercolour and pencil on paper, 35 cm x 24.5 cm
Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1951.235.263
Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums online

Seven other De Gheyn studies from the Cotman studio are known to current scholarship. The closest comparison to the Musketeer discussed in the previous instalment is a drawing at Norwich Castle Museum. This is based on plate 30 in the Musketeers series of the Wapenhandelinghe and there is an uncoloured example at the British Museum, besides the original impression hand-coloured by De Gheyn at the Rijksmuseum.

The Norwich watercolour registers exactly with its source, and must have been diligently traced. It also has an overall degree of finish that might argue that it was among the four works exhibited by Miles Edmund at the Norwich Society of Arts in 1825. In this case, however, the application of the colour is more solid both with regard to the costume and the background. We might imagine that John Sell encouraged his pupil to be bolder. In that light it is obvious that the draftsmanship in the foreground details is very assertive and the paintwork of the sky robust. It seems possible that the father intervened in these to encourage some greater visual dynamism.


An Arquebusier, after Jacob de Gheyn, c.1825
Pencil on paper, 265 x 180 mm, (10.4 x 7.1 in.)
Private Collection

The next example is a pencil drawing that was sold at Loveday’s, London, Thursday, November 26, 1998, lot 52 as John Sell Cotman, ‘An Arquebusier’. This is a copy of plate 23 in the series of Arquebusiers in De Gheyn’s Wapenhandlinghe.  In Dutch the series is called ‘Roers’, in French ‘arquebuses’ and in English ‘Calivers’. The weapon, an arquebus, is a lighter style of musket than those seen so far, which could be fired from the shoulder, and did not require a stand. These soldiers are readily identified in the series by the additional detail of wearing a steel helmet.

Image source. Wikipedia
In the 23. how he shall put the pouder out of the greater flaske, holding alwayes the peece from the ground, if he be able to doe it.

I have not had chance to examine the original drawing and the reproduction online is too small to form any judgement of its actual graphic qualities. So any attempt at attribution will have to be deferred. There are some observations, however, that might nonetheless be made. It seems apparent that the registration is not so exact as in the previous examples. The curve of the back is more exaggerated, the boots larger, and the feet planted on the ground more sturdily. The soldier in the drawing has a plume to his helmet and a more elaborate hilt to his sword.

Those confidences might point more to John Sell than Miles Edmund, but, however that may be resolved, the title does allow us to separate out the various subjects of Miles Edmund’s 1825 exhibits. The Arquebusier would have worn, as here, a helmet, and no such watercolour has been identified (thus far). The two watercolours already discussed cannot be called Arquebusiers though the Musketeer with which we began has been so-called, and if that and the present example were included in the 1825 exhibits they must be identified with the ‘ Bandoliers’.  Each wears an elaborate bandolier.

We can now turn to the major group of Cotman De Gheyn studies at Leeds. I catalogued these for the online catalogue of the Leeds Cotmans launched in 2017. Three were bought in Norwich in 1930 by the great Cotman scholar Sydney Kitson and listed by him as by John Sell. I was obliged to acknowledge, however that when Kitson showed them to Isherwood Kay of the National Gallery, then working towards a [never published] catalogue raisonne of Cotman, he expressed the opinion that they were by Miles Edmund: ‘Jan 9-12 1932. H Isherwood Kay & his wife came for the weekend – a great examination of Cotman drawings.. Thinks the soldiers & old woman Miles in 1825 – when he exhd such subjects.’ [Kitson’s ‘Cotmania’ notebook, Volume 7 for 1931-2 p.36]. A fourth was added to the collection by Kitson’s nephew, Robert Hawthorn Kitson, in 1952. All four are inscribed in the same manner ‘J.S.Cotman’ and in 2017 I catalogued the whole group as John Sell Cotman purely on the grounds of visual quality. That attribution should be reviewed as part of the full survey of the material being attempted here.

One observation that may be drawn is that the Kitson group includes two pikemen from the third series of the Wapenhandelinghe. These, at the very least, cannot have been among the group exhibited by Miles Edmund in 1825, for that consisted exclusively of an arquebusier and three bandoliers. Nor does it seem possible that any of the Leeds drawings can have been exhibited, for they are all unfinished. None provides features to the faces, nor do any have backgrounds. This provides an indication rather than proof, but the principal task here, now that we may identify specific sources for each of the watercolours, is to see what comparison with the originals might reveal.

In the first example, the registration between watercolour and engraving is exact enough for one to have been traced from the other. That said, there are slight differences. Both the pencil line and watercolour simplify the complexities of the engraving. If we compare treatments of the extended right arm for example, we can see that the watercolour eschews most of the complex folds and twists of the engraving. The same is true of the left arm, but in neither case is the sense of anatomy weakened. In fact the reverse, for the watercolour more directly expresses the mechanical action of the soldier, especially in suggesting the effort required to support the weight of the musket. The watercolour also has a distinctive solidity – simplifying volumes into areas, for example in the legs.  The solidity of the colour also lends a sense of substance to the fabrics. The hat in watercolour seems made explicitly of felt; the scarlet hose of a serviceable woollen weave. All in all, however unfinished, and economically made out, the soldier in the watercolour has a solidity, presence and well centred sense of balance that makes the engraving seem somewhat superfluous. The watercolour plants its stick on the ground, the engraving merely holds it.

The second Leeds example (above) likewise manages to upstage its original. Even in comparison to De Gheyn’s hand-coloured example at the Rijksmuseum, the colour in the watercolour is both more saturated, textural and applied with a greater sense of its materiality. De Gheyn’s twists and involutions are much reduced and the watercolour goes its own way in several details. The watercolour subtly exaggerates the soldier’s right elbow. His right leg is more muscular and hard-working. The watercolour reworks the shadows of items dangling from bandolier, to give them much greater abstract definition. The gun is treated more schematically to express weight and balance and the bows at knees are remade of soft fabric rather than of twisted shards of metal.

In the first (above) of two studies of pikemen at Leeds, the original is directly reconceived in terms of areas of watercolour. This is obvious in the plume, and is particularly effective in the better definition of the individual metal plates, most clearly expressed in the increased definition at left edge of the skirt.

The watercolour also subtly restructures the pose. Although evidently traced, given that the registration is so close, the head and body is tilted back to bring the pike to the vertical. The right arm is straightened to a diagonal the goes directly to base of pike. The texture and density of colour gives more substantive naturalism to the fabrics. The gloves are convincingly made of soft leather in the watercolour, and obscure the fingers beneath in a very convincing manner. The purple sash and fringe is softer, and hangs more convincingly. All the same interventions are also observable in the final drawing in the Leeds series given below.

There is one further curiosity relating to the three Leeds drawings owned by Sydney Kitson: There are drawings on the versos of each. On the first is an upright pencil drawing of a building by the waterside – bearing a sign ‘C Watson Cornfactor and Maltster’. The verso of the second drawing has a slight sketch of a castle and the verso of the third has a slight sketch of a landscape with trees. All are now very faint, but with some adjustment to the photographic contrast as below we can see enough of them to see that the style is clumsy and certainly that of a pupil or pupils in the school. I here reproduce the first and third; the second somehow managed to evade photography when I was working on the Leeds collection in 2014-17.

The drawings are clumsy and derivative, but do prove that the Leeds De Gheyn studies were made on recycled paper within the context of the drawing-school in Cotman’s Norwich studio. Cotman presumably thought that soldiers of a golden age would appeal to the ardent imagination of his pupils, and that these examples, if followed carefully, would yield insights into the subtleties of his application of paint and of his conception of the human figure. Cotman seems to have believed all along that artistic quality was self-evident and that the power of discrimination was universal. He would no doubt have enjoyed a much better living had this been true.

In 1835 Cotman found a pretty application for another drawing in this series, by mounting it as a cardboard cut-out and presenting it to Hannah Maw, daughter of his London patron John Hornby Maw, on the occasion of her fifth birthday. Evelyn Jol in his 2002 catalogue of Watercolours and Drawings at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, p.74 cites De Gheyn’s book and also quotes from Hannah’s memoir of the event which was attended by a constellation of artists including David Cox, William Hunt, Peter de Wint and J M W Turner.

I have only the small reproduction in Joll’s 2002 catalogue to work from, but again the two images register sufficiently for the drawing to have been traced, albeit the top half registers differently to the bottom, and the tracing paper might have been moved during the process.. Beyond that it is difficult to pursue the comparison in sufficient detail. It is possible to say, however, that the foreground appears to have been fully elaborated. It is good, occasionally, to leave an episode hanging. This is the one watercolour of the known group that actually depicts an Arquebusier. It is not impossible that this drawing was in fact that exhibited by Miles Edmund in 1825.

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