This is the twelfth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings published in 1811. Here, plate 9 takes in another Yorkshire abbey, and Cotman continues his quest to find a quiet corner in which to immure himself.
This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright architectural subject featuring an oblique view from the right of an elaborately carved Norman portal. The bottom of the opening is blocked by a rough wall; a dog sits on the ground in the foreground; there are some large fragments of masonry to the right, and through the portal a solitary bird wheels in the sky.
The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 20 January 1811 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 9 in the complete edition as published in 1811. With Rievaulx (plate 11), Easby Abbey (plate 20) and Croyland (plate 22), it is one of four plates bearing the same date. Hitherto Cotman worked or editioned his plates individually. The group constitute the tenth, eleventh and twelfth in date order, and show by this stage a very efficient and confident manner of working. The present plate represents a distinct advance even on the plate of North Creake. It is perfectly bitten, the lines are crisp and deft, the plate area fully worked, and the print clean and delicate. It suggests an entirely clear sense of both purpose and means.
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Kirkham Priory is one of the lesser-known of Yorkshire’s abbeys, tucked away in in a fold of the river Derwent, not far south of the main York to Malton road, and within ready walking distance of Castle Howard. It was founded in the early twelfth century for a community of Augustinian canons. At its height it boasted a large church and extensive outbuildings, but all that remains of the church today is one solitary arch, and of the remainder, parts of the cloister and refectory, together with its most substantial survival – a richly ornamented entrance gateway. Cotman did treat the gateway in an important watercolour at York Art Gallery, but for present purposes I must direct the interested reader to the discussion in Cotman in the North (pp.90-91).
Cotman first visited Kirkham in the company of fellow-artist Paul Sandby Munn, during a tour together of Yorkshire in 1803. On 7 July they arrived at Brandsby Hall, the home of the Cholmeley family about ten miles north of York. They stayed for a week and made good use of their time borrowing Mrs Cholmeley’s chaise and making several excursions in the neighbourhood. Their first excursion was on the 8th to Castle Howard, the home of the Earl of Carlisle, and on the same day they visited nearby Kirkham. Mrs Cholmeley recorded that they were delighted with Kirkham and made some exquisite drawings.
The subject of the etching is the refectory doorway as seen from the cloister. No original on-the-spot sketch has ever been recorded, and it is a singularity of Cotman that so many, perhaps the majority, of his original sketches appear to have disappeared.
Cotman was sufficiently interested in this subject, however, to develop it into a studio watercolour dated 1804, now at the Courtauld Institute Galleries, London. On site it is evident that Cotman found a perch at the corner of the leftmost lavatorium [where the monks washed their hands before going into the refectory].
His viewpoint must be very low to bring the line of the distant bank into this position, and there is a perfect block of stone one which he must have sat. The effect is uncanny enough to have made me search the surrounding walls for any sign of his initials.
Mrs Hill accompanied me on my last visit. She brings a more critical sensibility to bear upon such proceedings. She was trained in drawing at art college before making a living as a professional graphic designer and later teaching at Jacob Kramer in Leeds. She can be quite dry about Cotman. She pointed out that he was very inattentive with regard to the details of the portal. She counted eight lozenges on the outer arch. Cotman gives about fourteen.
She pointed out how poor in the watercolour were the lobes of the inner arch, and how vague the shields decorating the outer column and the bosses inside.
She admitted that the line of the hill was OK, but wanted to know where his expanse of water came from, when the river was behind him. Through the arch was only crumbling masonry. The sky, however, she was prepared to allow, was just about perfect.
We may wonder whether, if any on-the-spot drawing should turn up, it might better satisfy Mrs Hill’s strictures. It seems plain in any case that in the watercolour Cotman was more interested in an artistic effect than architectural accuracy. Mrs Hill finally observed that Turner would have drawn it correctly, on the grounds that his condition would have given him no option.
We have already had cause to notice that no artist has ever been so invested in the poetics of portals as Cotman. It is the first of two Kirkham subjects included in the Etchings by John Sell Cotman. The second (plate 18) is a view of the opposite side of the same portal.
Cotman carried the detail of the watercolour into the etching, and indeed drifted even further from the reality. All that notwithstanding, in terms of poetics the watercolour and the etching both develop strong themes. Most obviously the portal is open in the watercolour, but in the etching partly blocked by stones. There is a very good reason that it should be blocked, for there is a drop at the other side into the undercroft of the former refectory, given that the floor at refectory level had long disappeared. There is a sturdy fence there today to protect unwary visitors from misadventure. The effects in the two treatments are completely different. The watercolour gives a strong sense of immuration, but also of the possibility of escape into a wider landscape. Here, although the portal promises a world beyond, the way is roughly barred.
The dog is another new element. Dogs are a common theme in Cotman’s work. In Cotman in the North I gave some consideration to the fact that Cotman had a dog (‘Tippoo’) and even took it travelling with him. It had many adventures, appears to have been less-than-impeccably behaved, and survived more by good luck than good management.
Here the dog waits patiently for its owner’s bidding, and represents a certain detainment in the artist’s circumstances. There is an implicit tension between its present docility and potential release beyond; a study in miniature of a broader cultural theme of civil constraint versus natural abandon. Tippoo appears sometimes to have exercised its freedom all too wildly and in one incident almost drowned in the river Tees.
The key cipher of natural vitality is the bird wheeling in the sky. Two great opposed traditions in art are those of formal essentiality and material phenomenology. In about 1805, Cotman dramatically refocused his career away from the latter, particularly as exemplified by Turner, towards the former where there was less (perhaps no) competition. It was to prove a difficult decision from a commercial point of view, but a triumph aesthetically. The Etchings enact his progress towards the realisation of his ideals, and the deft mark of the bird against the patch of pure paper reserved at the centre of his composition is the perfect expression of his aesthetic ambition.
It is perhaps, therefore, something of an indictment that when H. G. Bohn came to re-edition the plate in 1838, he felt that it was in need of improvement. Cotman from the beginning had left areas of his compositions blank. In the skies, as we have seen, this was generally found to be a weakness, but here is the exception in which Cotman made it a poetic virtue. Bohn, however, was playing to popular taste, which in the late 1830s was for microscopically fine, tonally sensational, highly wrought steel engravings. It is precisely that sort of densely fine line work that he added to give tone to the sky. In the process he managed to blur the imaginative clarity of the bird, and render its scintillating space merely dull.
Summary of known states:
First published state
As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 9.
Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 292 x 220 mm on plate 305 x 227 mm on sheet 474 x 340 mm.
Inscribed on plate lower left ‘Norwich, Published and Etched by J S Cotman/ Jany 20th 1811’ and lower centre (much more faintly) ‘Kirkham Priory Yorks’. Author’s copy inscribed by the artist in lower margin in pencil, as called for in the printed list of subjects: ‘Kirkham Priory/ Yorksh’
Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.11
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, iv. Plate as 1811 edition except for new work at the centre to add tone to the sky, addition of inscribed numeral ‘IV’ top centre, strengthening of title inscription lower centre and insertion of additional line above ‘Saxo Norman Doorway’. ,
Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.11
Popham, 1922, no.11.