Plate 6, St Mary’s Abbey, York

This is the ninth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings, published in 1811. Here, plate 6 returns us to York, to sketch in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey.

John Sell Cotman
St Mary’s Abbey, York, 1810
Private collection
Photograph: Professor David Hill

This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright architectural subject featuring a tall, ribbed, gothic pointed arch, with a view through to a grassy mid-distance flanked by trees. The arch is flanked on the right by a tall multi-columnar pier, its right three columns reaching to twice the height of the arch.  A wall extends to the left where we can see an open pointed-arch window, flanked by two blind lancets. The window tracery is missing except for the tricuspid upper part. In the foreground is an artist seated on the ground drawing on a substantial sheet resting on his knees. He wears a light-coloured waistcoat with striped front panels and dark trousers. By his left elbow, there is a leather roll on the ground, probably containing his drawing materials.

The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 3 October 1810 for his first series of ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’. This was issued to subscribers in parts, and the present subject was published as plate 6 in the complete edition as published in 1811. It is the first large plate in the published order, although the third in date order, and the sixth overall of those published. It lacks detail in the sky, and is perhaps over-prettily vignetted, but is has splendidly inventive use of the burin. There is considerable scratching of the plate especially to the lower left, probably caused by wiping, and some smuts on the tall columns at the right. It is interesting that the ‘3’ is reversed in the inscribed date. This rather betrays Cotman’s inexperience in the medium, and there are many such mistakes in his earlier etchings.  

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The subject is the arch between the north aisle of the nave and the north transept of St Mary’s Abbey. York. The abbey was founded in 1086 on a site just outside the western wall of the city, stretching north from the left bank of the Ouse. The original church was destroyed in a city-wide conflagration in 1137 and the rebuild completely replaced by a new Gothic church in 1270-94. At its dissolution in 1539 it was the richest house in the north. Over the next two hundred years it was gradually depredated until by the later eighteenth century this arch was the most substantial part of the whole church to survive.

St Mary’s Abbey, York. Arch of north aisle. Photograph by Professor David Hill

The main cluster of columns is the north-west pier of the crossing. It should be noted that the etching gives the subject in its true orientation. It is the first large plate in date order in which Cotman negotiated his way through the difficulties of reversal inherent in the etching process. Simply put, the image on the plate prints on paper as a mirror image. Etching the plate in reverse so that it will print requires practice and process.  Both earlier larger plates, North Creake and Rievaulx [which come later in the published order] are both reversed, as are the preceding smaller plates of The Manor House, York and Duncombe Park. The smaller plates of Valle Crucis and South Burlingham give their subjects the right way round.

Cotman visited York at the beginning of his first tour to Yorkshire in 1803. He was travelling in the company of fellow artist Paul Sandby Munn, at whose house in London he was then living. I wrote about the tour as fully as I could in Cotman and the North (Yale University Press, 2005) where I surmised that the two arrived in the city on the 2nd or 3rd of July.  We know something of their sketching activity from dated drawings, and although no sketch of the subject by Cotman survives, there is one by Paul Sandby Munn dated 4 July 1803.

Paul Sandby Munn, St Mary’s Abbey York, 1803. FrPaul Sandbyom a photocopy of an archive photograph, where recorded that the original is dated 4 July 1803.

It seems possible that the two artists sat side-by side. In Cotman in the North I wondered to what extent the two artists might have shared material, given that Cotman was living at Munn’s house in London, where he ran an extensive business selling art materials, manuals, drawings and prints. Comparison of the treatments, suggests that Munn’s drawing appears commendably accurate in detail and although Cotman’s etching is more picturesque, it contains nothing of substance that could not have been elaborated from Munn’s sketch.

The composition provoked further work by both artists. There is a watercolour version given to Cotman that was once in the collection of Sir Henry Nicholas Holmes (1868-1940), Lord Mayor of Norwich in 1921 and 1932.

This is now known only through a photograph in the Witt Library. An unidentified exhibition catalogue entry attached to the Witt mount remarks that ‘In the foreground is a figure in a deep blue waistcoat’, which sounds an attractive detail. The photograph is too poor to make any definite judgement of the quality of the original, but the general impression is not encouraging.

An annotation on the Witt mount doubts the attribution to John Sell Cotman. Miklos Rajnai’s notes in this catalogue of early drawing by Cotman, published by the Castle Museum, Norwich in 1979 (no 24 n.14) notes two watercolour copies by pupils, but makes no specific mention of the Holmes watercolour.

John Sell Cotman, St Mary’s Abbey, 1815.
Courtesy of the Huntington Art Museum, San Marino, California

In 1815 Cotman reworked the composition in a graphite drawing at the Huntington Art Museum at San Marino. California. It makes a strikingly different impression to the etching. The architecture is regularised, all the orthogonals are rationalised and the masses sit much more squarely on the ground. Cotman was by this stage an accomplished draftsman of architectural and antiquarian subjects. He was also an experienced printmaker both of line and softground etchings, and it is possible that this drawing was made in that context. He was also well established as a drawing master and maintained portfolios of drawings for his students to study and copy. It has not been previously noted that the Huntington drawing seems to bear a number at the lower left inscribed just above the signature. This appears to read ‘1139’, although the third digit is imperfect and might alternatively have been intended for a ‘5’. Over the years Cotman numbered several thousand drawings in this series. There is a good deal of work that might yet be done on the numeration.

Many of his compositions from this period seem to have been designed to appeal to pupils. Cotman here turns the remains into a grand garden, with a boy gardener and his dog and barrow, but he designs different areas for the eye to explore, sometimes with promise, as in the long avenue at the centre, or with mystery and even menace, with the dark portal at the right, or the dark blasted trees beyond.  All of this is poetic invention, rather than any statement of topographical fact.

Munn also maintained his own interest in this subject over a number of years. York City Art Gallery has a watercolour of the same view, also featuring a seated artist, albeit different to Cotman’s, signed and dated ‘P S Munn 1810’ (R.1498) I am grateful to Theodore Wilkins at York Museums Trust for letting me see an image of this. It is by no means a substantial production, and might well be a studio production.

I am grateful to Ming Aguilar at the Huntington for help with images of their drawing. Ming also drew my attention to another drawing of this subject in their collection which records the identical composition to that at York. This, too, appears to be a studio work, but the handling is perhaps a little more crisp than that at York. At the very least it does appear that it was a popular composition with Munn’s clients. I hope to be able to illustrate the comparison in due course.

St Mary’s Abbey, York, aisle arch from north transept. Photograph by Professor David Hill

On the same day as recording the view of the north aisle arch from the nave, Munn and Cotman took a diametrically opposed view from the north transept. No on-the-spot sketch by either artist survives, but each made at least two studio drawings.

John Sell Cotman St Mary’s Abbey, York, c.1804 Pencil on paper, 365 x 252 mm Te Papa, National Museum of New Zealand, 1957-0009-279

The first by Cotman is a superb pencil drawing now at Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand. This was completely unknown to me when I wrote Cotman in the North in 2005, and was only recently made readily discoverable by Te Papa putting its collection online with high-quality imagery. It is an important early work; probably dateable to 1804-5, and a tour-de-force demonstration of his superlative delicacy with the pencil at this period. It was clearly intended to be shown, but in what context is perhaps less clear. He might have submitted it to the Royal Academy, but the whole trend there was towards the grand machine. Any pencil drawing would seem extremely lightweight by comparison. After the inauguration of the Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1805, pencil drawings were increasingly shown, but given that the general trend was towards making watercolours more densely coloured and toned so as to rival oils, even such an elaborate pencil drawing as this would have seemed insubstantial. Nevertheless it was by no means his only large, demonstrative, drawing of this period. There are several fine drawings, all about the same size of 14 ¼ x 11 ins, including Rievaulx Abbey (Tate Gallery, T00973), Fountain’s Abbey (Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1951.235.482 [dated 1804]) and Howden (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, USA, B1975.2.507). I am reminded that drawing was considered in Cotman’s circle as being expressive of moral clarity and intellectual purity (cf. Cotman in the North, pp.20-1), and its tuition conducive to the development of such qualities in the pupil. Artists have perhaps always seen each other’s drawings as the most direct window onto creative ability. ‘Genius’ as a concept has enjoyed something of a trashing in recent art-history, but anyone who has ever attempted the practice of drawing immediately learns to recognise it in others, and some, even, discover it in themselves. In drawings such as this Cotman was attempting to trade on these principles. The trouble being, as we frequently have had cause to observe, that most buyers in Cotman’s market tended to gauge art against qualities of weight and measure.

The special feature of this drawing is its central figure of a girl spinning fibres, presumably wool, on a hand distaff and spindle. This is an exceptional conception and worth giving attention for its beauty alone. It is, however, jarringly anachronistic. The technique depicted dates back to the Neolithic. It may be seen on Greek Bronze Age vases.

Vase from ancient Athens c.490-470 BC (detail). British Museum Source of image: Wikimedia

In York in 1803 it was long outmoded. The spinning wheel was in use by the eleventh century and dominated cottage production until the eighteenth century. After the invention of the spinning jenny and spinning frame in the mid eighteenth century, spinning moved into factories, and although cottage spinning never completely disappeared, by the early nineteenth century – particularly in West Yorkshire, the world centre of industrial wool production – it was a decidedly marginal activity. Cotman is deliberately offering a foil to consider against contemporary life.

John Sell Cotman

St Mary’s Abbey York, c.1808

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, 1953P119

In 1809 Cotman exhibited two compositions of ‘St Mary’s Abbey, York’, nos. 7 and 9 at at the Norwich Society of Arts. It seems a reasonable surmise that the exhibits showed the two aspects being discussed here. There appears to be no candidate for an 1809 exhibit of the view from the nave unless that might be the ex-Holmes watercolour, but there is a perfect candidate for the transept view in a watercolour at Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries.

In many ways this is one of the most remarkable compositions of this part of Cotman’s career. In it he completely eschews any sense of elaboration, especially of the kind displayed in his pencil composition, and eliminates anything topographically contextual. So the arch is recast as a solitary sentinel in an apparently lonely country. St Mary’s is adjacent to York city centre, but anything approaching contemporary bustle and business is banished, and the arch bears gleaming witness against a dark context. Contemporary construction is limited to what can be fashioned from a few simple timbers stacked against a wall. If this was one of the exhibited works then it would have been seen as an affront; its simplicity a repudiation of the elaborate pretensions demanded by contemporary taste. Even if it was not the exhibit, it remains almost unaccountable. What could possibly be the context in which any merit in this would be apparent? As I explored in Cotman in the North, that context is one of practice. Anyone actively attempting any sort of visual conception would have immediately seen imaginative directness and power, and recognised that any greater elaboration was no more than pandering.

Paul Sandby Munn

St Mary’s Abbey, York, 1803

Pencil and watercolour, 311 x 212 mm

British Museum, London, 1889,1218.12

Probably about the same time as Cotman made his pencil drawing, Munn painted a fine and frothy watercolour at the British Museum. Miklos Rajnai noticed in 1975 that this is inscribed with the date 4 July 1803, but that is not noticed in the current online catalogue of the British Museum’s collection.

Paul Sandby Munn

St Mary’s Abbey, York, 1812


York Art Gallery, YORAG 2002.10.55

Finally, Munn was inspired (perhaps by Cotman’s own efforts) to translate the composition into a print. York has two impressions dated 1812 (YORAG : R3968 and YORAG : 2002.10.55, the latter mis-read as ‘P.P.MURN’). It was no.3 in a series of six ‘Etchings on stone’ that Munn published in that year. Rather than line-etching however, Munn chose the medium of lithography, which more naturally transmits the texture of graphite drawing. His own inexperience in printmaking, however, is betrayed by the fact that he was unable to reverse the composition so that it would print the correct way round. As we have seen, Cotman’s etching of St Mary’s was one of the first in which he addressed that problem. Munn’s work might have been a spur to Cotman in terms of his own working with more expressive forms of printmaking, for soon after he embarked on an extended series of softground etchings.

Returning to the 1811 etching, it seems natural to wonder why he chose this particular composition. Especially given how excellently sumptuous was his treatment of the Te Papa drawing and how excellently uncompromising that of the Birmingham watercolour. In any case it cannot have been for any intrinsic importance in the architecture. York teems with significant subjects. Cotman even drew one of them; the Ouse Bridge, but he seems to have rejected most of the others, including York Minster.

Turner’s approach by contrast seems architecturally gargantuan. He sketch in York in 1797 and I reproduced most of the subjects in Turner in the North (Yale UP 1996). In a visit of no more than a few days, he recorded the Minster inside and out, made two detailed sketches of the Ouse Bridge, took St Mary’s in detail and from the river (simultaneously taking in Lendal Tower, much of the town AND York Minster), a view of the town, Minster and walls, and finally a picturesque street scene.

Cotman by contrast reminds me of Ruskin’s famous self-discovery that his mind had not room enough to engage properly with anything beyond details. Here fifty years before that, Cotman’s takes his stance on equally contracted ground.

Just at the point where he needed a well-realised figure, Cotman’s inexperience in the medium of etching let him down. The artist seated on the ground in the etching suffers from a seriously under-resolved head. Cotman has failed to define the outline from the background, nor to resolve the form. At true scale the eye attempts to construe the shape as a wide-brimmed hat with a white band, but under the magnifying glass this dissolves into complete uncertainty. The first impression does, however, appear to be correct, for poor quality of the reproduction notwithstanding, the figure in the Holmes watercolour does wear a dark hat with a wide, light-coloured brim.

Bohn 1838 impression with revised head

When in 1838 H.G.Bohn republished the plate in his two-volume edition of ‘Specimens of Architectural Remains in various Counties in England, but especially in Norfolk. Etched by John Sell Cotman’, the head had been ‘improved’. At least it now stands out distinct from the background, but sadly, shrunken to about half the size it ought to have been. In retrospect it seems surprising that Bohn can possibly have approved such an aberration. Perhaps still more so that no-one seems ever to have published any comment!

Detail of Cotman’s original with blank areas

On the whole, however, most of Bohn’s interventions do seem to have been positive. Here he intervened more extensively in the blank areas of the columns and masonry, just to add discrete areas of shading to add the semblance of work, thought and finish, and also brushed away the various smuts and scratches that accumulated through inexperienced handling of the plate.

Detail of H.G.Bohn’s 1838 version, with added shading

These refinements do make Cotman’s 1811 plate seem unfinished. Cotman was presumably conscious of this, but too technically inexperienced to trust himself to reground and re-etch the plate for reasonable fear of losing everything that he had achieved in it thus far. He was probably right. We will hear of at least one catastrophe in relation to a later effort.

As the series developed Cotman sent prepublication copies to his Yorkshire friend Francis Cholmeley of Brandsby. Cholmeley was assiduous in showing them to booksellers and acquaintances to drum up subscribers.  Although he does not mention St Mary’s specifically, he does comment ‘by the dates you improve as you go on. There is a want of delicacy and effect I think in some of the earlier ones, particularly some of the gothic arches’ (Letter of 24 February 1811, quoted Cotman in the North, 2005, p.162). On 16 April he advised: ‘The only thing I could wish otherwise now (and perhaps I am wrong) is that you would put in skies in order to give the whole more the appearance of a finished piece’ (p.163). Cotman must have been well aware of the necessity of skies; in the Birmingham watercolour of St Mary’s, indeed in pretty much all his work in watercolour up to now, it provided, as Constable recognised, ‘the chief organ of sentiment’. It was only in the later plates, however, that he felt confident enough to add a sky. The earliest is St Botolph’s Priory, Colchester, dated 20 February 1811, but as we will see that only succeeded after the first attempt was ruined.

Cotman must have been all-too-aware of his failures, imperfections and hesitations, but let the record stand. In one way it makes the series all the more valuable: A document of coming to grips with a medium. A record of a process, and indeed of a struggle, calculated as he said ‘to shew talent’ and to demonstrate ability grappling with adversity. Like many artists of the period, he is offering a book of drawing, but unlike the others, his is frankly confessional, and its exposure of the creative process all the more intimate as a result. Perhaps his real manifesto is in the smallest detail. The draftsman’s roll; the stocks made out with painstaking care, the very instruments that he staked his livelihood on mastering.

Summary of known states:

First published state

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811.

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 285 x 195 mm on plate 314 x 203 mm on sheet 474 x 340 mm.

Inscribed on plate lower left, barely legible against the background detailing: ‘Etched and Published by J S Cotman/ Oct 3 [the 3 reversed] 1810’ and lower right, against the grass in script: ‘ Saint Marys Abby [sic] York’. Collection: Examples in various collections: e.g. National Galleries of Scotland, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford [WA1989.66.6]

Second Published state

As above but in some editions, with engraved script title ‘St Mary’s Abbey, York’ added lower centre and title inscribed by the artist in lower margin. d). The National Trust at Felbrigg, Norfolk has a large paper copy (?presentation proof). In addition some copies of the 1811 edition [as reproduced here] have a title inscription by the artist in graphite below the subject ‘St Mary’s Abbey/ Yorks’. This is called for in the printed description of subjects.

Third published state

As editioned by H G Bohn in ‘Specimens of Architectural Remains in various Counties in England, but especially in Norfolk. Etched by John Sell Cotman’, 1838, Vol. 2, series IV, vii. Printed more positively in black ink on sheet, 490 x 350 mm. The plate reworked with detail in originally blank areas and with clarification of the head of the seated figure. Additionally inscribed top centre of plate, ‘VII’.  Cf. e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1923.86.8

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