Plate 7: North Creake Abbey, Norfolk

This is the tenth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings, published in 1811. Here, plate 7 takes us to another obscure corner of Norfolk.

John Sell Cotman
North Creake Abbey, Norfolk, 1810
Private collection
Photograph: Professor David Hill

This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright architectural subject featuring a pair of gothic arches supported by an octagonal column. The arches are surmounted by a crumbling masonry gable, and let into a hay barn under a rotting roof. To the left are two bays of an arcade of gothic arches supported on clustered columns and to the left the ruins of what appear to be domestic buildings. In the left foreground is a mound, possibly of debris, sloping right to a pool of water. Two figures occupy the centre of the composition; a seated man, wearing breeches, a striped waistcoat and a brimmed hat shading his eyes, and by his side stands a girl of perhaps three or four years, wearing a dark dress with a white pinafore over.

The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 20 September 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 7 in the complete edition of 1811. It is the second large plate in the published order, and the second in date order, and the fifth overall of those published. It is, however, the first in which Cotman achieved a clean and crisp appearance and which strikes a good balance between etched line and blank area. The detailing shines through attractively even in the heavily worked areas. The clean finish is marred only by one scratch in the sky top right, which must have been a frustration and a disappointment, especially if it occurred while the plate was being editioned. This is an ever-present hazard in the process of line etching. Between each print the plate must be wiped clean before being re-inked, with the constant risk of grit contaminating the cloths. It would be interesting to see whether it is absent in earlier strikes. It was burnished off in the Bohn edition of 1838 (see summary of states, below).

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Creake Abbey is by no means the most impressive or well-known architectural subject in Norfolk. It lies tucked away off the road from Burnham Market to Fakenham.

In the thirteenth century it developed rapidly from private chapel to fully-fledged abbey, with a large cruciform church, cloisters, hospital and lodgings.

It was severely damaged in a fire of 1484, but although restored in a much reduced form, the community was soon after decimated by plague, the abbey was abandoned and the remains afterwards patched up as farm buildings.

Creake Abbey: the choir as seen from the nave. Cotman’s subject is from behind the walls to the left, looking towards us.
Source: Admiralgary, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nor is this the most obvious subject at the site. It perhaps says much about Cotman’s choice of subject that no exactly comparative photograph presents itself amongst all those online. The two arches with clustered columns, however, do survive as the south wall of the north-east chapel, but today only one of the two arches survives of the former transept. No original on-the-spot drawing by Cotman is known, but the subject must have been reversed in the etching process for the clustered columns in fact are to the left of the transept arch.

Cotman visited North Creake in the winter days of early 1808. He began composing a letter to his Yorkshire patron Francis Cholmeley on 11 February, and continued on the 22nd: ‘Since the commencement of this I have been on a visit to North Creak… Our journey was dreadful and providentially at Fakenham we were advised by the landlord to give up quitting his house that night. – In the morning we started and found the road tracked but to a certain point. We went on and on till down went the horses, and the leader compleately buried, We took the ladies out, the horses fresh kicked and plunged till they were unharnessed and dug out, for which assistance I rode to find, the moment of the catastrophe. We took another road to Basham House [i.e. East Barsham Hall]… to where we were going it was only 5 miles and we were three hours going. The ladies dined there and Mr Blythe and myself rode on to Creak 8 miles to see how the roads were, from which place men were sent to cut and track the worst parts of the road and through this assistance we arrived at Creak at 9 o’clock, having been literally the whole day going 14 miles and two days going 35.’

The whole affair sounds positively Turnerian. I have not yet managed to identify the Mr Blythe in question, but presumably he was a resident of North Creake. Quite what was Cotman’s business at North Creake, sufficiently important to be travelling with ladies in such a season is unclear, but it could have been connected in some way with Cotman’s thoughts turning to marriage. One can only imagine, however, if Turner had been through all this, we would have been given an epic of mud-mired coach and February weather.

A wet February was perhaps not the best time for sketching out-of-doors, and it may be that Cotman returned later. He must certainly have visited North Norfolk again during 1808 as his courtship with Ann Miles of Felbrigg progressed towards their wedding on 6 January 1809. The time of year in the etching appears to be late summer. The space through the arches appears to be in use as a hay store, and Cotman has taken quite an interest in the improvised structure of a loft floor, which appears to have mostly collapsed, quite apart from the fact that there are gaping holes in the roof, so the space has been rendered worse than useless as a dry store. The mounds of debris all around and the parlous condition of the fabric suggest a complete impoverishment of capability.

In that light the two figures appear rather pathetic. The male figure sits surveying the ruin. Maintenance of the fabric is obviously all too much for one man alone, but it appears that the site has received little attention for some considerable time. The little girl is innocent of any responsibility for any of this, and yet by implication is born to be affected by it. Manpower was a major issue in farming at this time. The history of eighteenth and nineteenth century England is one of continual migration from the land to the city. In many areas the problem was further compounded by the fact that England had been at war for decades and labour had been abstracted by the army and navy. A plausible scenario here is that the old farmer’s sons have been taken, and he is left unable to maintain the place alone.

The holes in the roof tell a clear story; his hay will rot without shelter, and the few slats scattered where the farmer is sitting suggest the magnitude and hopelessness of the task. Cotman would have been acutely aware of issues in Norfolk farming.  Ann Miles, who he married in 1809, was the daughter of a Felbrigg farmer, not so very far away, and Cotman would have known well that Admiral Horatio Nelson had been born less than a mile from here at Burnham Thorpe.  Ann Miles’s sister married another Norwich artist, John Thirtle. The composition is pointedly a study in the prospects of the daughters or granddaughters of farmers and whilst we might wonder whether Cotman was specifically thinking of the situation at Felbrigg, at the very least, we can say that North Creake furnished him with material on which to base a more general rumination on rural demographics.

We might note in passing that Cotman adapted the figure group in reverse, from a watercolour of Kirby Bedon Tower at Norwich Castle Museum [NWHCM : 1947.217.147]. This observation was made by Miklos Rajnai in his catalogue of John Sell Cotman: Early Drawings in Norwich Castle Museum, Norfolk Museums Service, 1979, under no.94. Rajnai says that the watercolour is almost certainly that exhibited at the Norwich Society of Artists in 1810 as no.43, ‘Kirby Bedon Tower’. 

Image courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum; Image scanned from Andrew W. Moore, John Sell Cotman, 1782-1842, Norfolk Museums Service, 1982, p.97

Thus there can be little more than a few months between the date of the watercolour and the date of the etching. It is Interesting that the effect of the group is very different in the two contexts. In the Kirby Bedon watercolour they serve in an Arcadian reverie, here in social realism. Cotman could compose poetry, clearly, in several different keys.

Cotman repeated the subject in a later subject engraved for a series of Illustrations for a two-volume Excursions in Norfolk published in 1818.

Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transferred from the Department of Architecture, Harvard University ) (1933.166)

The engraving was based on a drawing at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, USA, and the subject is shown the correct way round. [The image, I should point out, has reflections from a gloss covering, probably of a black and white photograph, but is the only one available on the Fogg’s website]. It was presumably based on Cotman’s lost on-the-spot sketch, but it does not have anything like the critical edginess of the 1810 etching. The flimsy improvised strapping and hanging floor is removed entirely. The ground is altogether more pastoral, and the keynote figures are replaced by some grazing cattle.

Image courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum: Scanned from a print in the author’s collection

A drawing by John Berney Ladbrook at the Norwich Castle Museum [NWHCM : 1951.235.B1.1015] is signed and dated 1818, when the artist was fifteen, and shows exactly the same subject. It appears to have been almost directly derived from Cotman’s Excursions composition.

Summary of known states:

First published state

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 7.

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 280 x 224 mm on plate 305 x 227 mm on sheet (WM ‘1810’ in copy in the collection of the author] 474 x 340 mm.

Inscribed on plate lower left: ‘North Creake Abbey/ J S Cotman Delt et Sc/ / Published Sep 20 1810’. Author’s copy inscribed by the artist in lower margin in pencil, as called for in the printed list of subjects: ‘North Creake Abbey’

Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1956.254.9

Second 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. 1, series II, xiii.  Plate identical to 1811 edition except for burnishing of scratch in sky upper right, and inscribed in plate top right, ‘XIII’. Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Casyle Museum, NWHCM : 1954.138.Todd14.Gallow.92.


Popham, 1922, no.9.

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