Plate 8: Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire

This is the eleventh article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings, published in 1811. Here, plate 8 offers another Yorkshire subject, and the first location of genuine renown. Typically, however, Cotman finds an obscure corner to depict, so much so that it has resisted proper identification until now.

John Sell Cotman
Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, 1810
Private collection
Photograph: Professor David Hill

This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright architectural subject featuring the remains of a vaulted Gothic chapel attached to a much taller structure beyond to the right. The chapel serves as a cow-byre and has a disintegrating thatched shelter within. A cow stands before the byre to the right, and a cart has been stripped of its wheels and abandoned to the left. The composition opens out at the left with a distant hill and a cow standing before the field in the middle distance.  

The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 4 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 8 in the complete edition as published in 1811. It is the first of the large plates in date order and the third of all the published plates (following only The Manor House, York and South Burlingham Church) and dated only a few weeks after his very first adventures into etching in June 1810.

It must have been quite a step up to work on this scale, and from the evidence of two early states that have descended in the Cholmeley collection, the plate took some while to resolve. The date is present in the earliest state, so it is clear that he did not edition it at the date of inscription. One issue that he was forced to address was that of the cow to the right.

In the first state it appears to be missing its head. It seems possible that Cotman intended it to be turning away to nuzzle its flank, but in any case it was revised in the second state to resolve any ambiguity. The continued attention was certainly worthwhile, for he considerably enriched the composition in the process. His improvements were probably the reason that although it was developed early in the sequence, it was actually issued as the eighth plate in the published sequence and as the third of the larger plates.

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Rievaulx Abbey was the most important Cistercian house in Britain. It is still one of the most impressive of all monastic sites. This depends only in part upon the beauty and extent of the architectural remains, but equally on its remarkably sequestered location. It hides away in upper Ryedale, protected by a maze of narrow lanes, bordered by grassy banks, roadside flowers and hedgerows so profuse as to be reduced to a (small) car’s width in midsummer. The serious pilgrim should, if possible, walk – an extremely pleasant hour or two from nearby Helmsley.

Rievaulx Abbey. Photograph taken by Professor David Hill, 2004

This is first of three Rievaulx subjects included in the Etchings by John Sell Cotman. The others are plates 10 and 12, and their subjects and related works will be discussed separately. Three, however, is a disproportionate number in a set of only twenty-four, and only one other site – Braiseworth in Suffolk – receives as many. Cotman first visited Rievaulx in the company of fellow-artist Paul Sandby Munn, whilst staying at nearby Brandsby Hall, the home of the Cholmeley family. They made a brief tour from Brandsby over the weekend of  9-10 July 1803, staying at Helmsley. Mrs Cholmeley recorded ‘They returned last Sunday night from Rivaulx in raptures, thinking it altogether the finest ruin they had ever seen.’  Cotman returned to Rievaulx during a three-day family visit to Helmsley in early September. The Cholmeley papers record that they travelled with illustrious visitors, Lord and Lady Palmerston, and enjoyed a grand picnic at Rievaulx terrace. I gave a resume of Cotman’s subjects at Rievaulx in Cotman in the North (2005) pp.26-32 (and of the picnic on p.58) where the main points are how few of Cotman’s original on-the-spot sketches appear to have survived, given how many subjects he recorded there, and yet how calculatedly anti-heroic is his choice of subject. Rievaulx is magnificent, but Cotman made no attempt to treat it in sublime terms.

There is, for example, no attempt to capture its setting,

nor indeed any overview of its architecture

nor any light-suffused enfilade of columns and soaring arches.

The majority of his subjects are details, portals and odd corners. So odd, in fact, in this case that in Cotman and the North, I managed to completely mistake the true subject of the etching, so am glad to have the opportunity here of setting the record straight.

The subject of the etching is the chapel of the north transept as seen from across the choir. This completely eluded me in 2005.

Recognition was complicated by the subject being reversed in the etching, and by the fact that I was unaware of a major treatment of the subject in watercolour. This resurfaced at Christie’s in London on 5 June 2006, as lot 35, and the following year was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

John Sell Cotman
Rievaulx Abbey, the North Transept, 1803
Watercolour, 11 15/16 x 8 1/4 in. (30.3 x 21 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 2007.39

The Christie’s catalogue followed my erroneous Cotman in the North identification, and it was only in reviewing the situation in the light of the emergence of the Metropolitan watercolour that I realised that some opportunity to correct the mistake would be required. A return to Rievaulx, however, to photograph the true subject had to wait until June 2021, almost exactly, as it happens, two hundred years since Cotman published his series of etchings.

As with North Creake (plate 7) it is a measure of Cotman’s obscurity that no exactly comparative photograph presents itself online, and the only way to confirm the identification was through a site visit. In moving through the ruins to the viewpoint it was all too obvious how much Cotman was ignoring in order to focus on this singular motif.

The site visit also allowed me to correct a related misidentification in Cotman in the North. The V&A has a fine, closely related watercolour. I noticed that this showed the same material as the etching, but from a different angle, but in my description mistakenly set all at the east end. Instead, I can now confirm, the V&A watercolour shows the same North Transept chapel, but in this case from further left, in the crossing.

Almost all the subjects in this series are studies in hubris. Rievaulx controlled land and estates from the Tees to South Yorkshire, and grew rich on iron and wool. For four hundred years the monks of Rievaulx shaped the economy of the north. The etching, however, is the very image of impoverishment. Even allowing for the disappearance of monastic social energy, everything about the lifestyle here appears exhausted: Even the cows seem bewildered; the byre is in a state of collapse, and the cart without its wheels. Elsewhere, the industrial revolution was booming. Factories in Leeds employed thousands with steam-powered machinery churning out fabrics by the mile. Roads and bridges were being built, forests felled to build ships for international trade and war and towns merging into industrial conurbations. These images on the other hand are meditations from the margins; dreamworks in which to accommodate the dynamically shifting balance of country and city. Wheels were forged from steel in the former, but had completely fallen off in the latter.

Summary of known states:

Engraver’s Proof: State 1

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, wove paper, image approx. 298 x 217 mm on plate 305 x 227 mm.

Inscribed on plate lower left: ‘Norwich, Etched and Published by J S Cotman Sepr 4th 1810′. With white sheet hanging lower right and cow with head turned away. Various marks along top edge of plate.

One impression known in private collection – a descendant of the Cholmeley family of Brandby Hall, Yorkshire, printed on large sheet, 485 x 340 mm

Engraver’s Proof: State 2

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, wove paper, image approx. 298 x 217 mm on plate 305 x 227 mm.

As proof #1, but with head added to cow and sheet behind darkened. Birds added left; marks along top edge reduced; shade within arches deepened with fine hatching; cart and foreground deepened likewise

One impression known in private collection – a descendant of the Cholmeley family of Brandby Hall, Yorkshire, printed on large sheet, 485 x 340 mm

First published state

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 8.

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 298 x 217 mm on plate 305 x 227 mm on sheet [WM ‘1810’ in copy in the collection of the author] 474 x 340 mm.

As engraver’s proof #2 but with extraneous marks along top edge burnished off, foliage added to top of tower top; right quadrant overworked and deepened in tone, as is whole of right column. Detail added to foliage above the arches, the inner part of the right arch shaded, detail added to the right arch, capitals and column cluster. Detail added to byre thatch and to hanging sheet behind cow’s head. The landscape left comprehensively elaborated.  Tone of foreground comprehensively deeped, in the process overworking, but not obscuring the publication line. Inscribed on plate lower centre ‘Rivaux Abby York’. Author’s copy inscribed by the artist in lower margin in pencil, as called for in the printed list of subjects: ‘Rivaulx Abbey/ Yorks’

Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.10

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. 2, series 4, viii.  Plate identical to 1811 edition except for correction of inscribed title lower centre, to ‘Rivaulx’, and inscribed in plate top centre, ‘VIII’. Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.10


Popham, 1922, no.10.

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