Plate 10: Rievaulx Abbey, the Refectory Doorway, Yorkshire

This is the thirteenth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings published in 1811. Here in plate 10 Cotman offers us a second subject at Rievaulx Abbey, though no less retiring than the first.

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

This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright architectural subject featuring an oblique view from the left of a grand, but relatively plain, Norman portal. The foreground is filled with a variety of foliage, and the view through the portal is largely blocked to the right by a tree, but to the left is a glimpse of birds in the sky.

The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 13 November 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 10 in the complete edition as published in 1811. This is the seventh plate overall in date order, and the fourth of the larger plates. Confident and crisp in the execution, and the most decorative yet in terms of the treatment of foreground grasses and vegetation.

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This is the second Rievaulx subject in the series. The first was plate 8. 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. The pair made a brief tour from Brandsby  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.’ After exploring Yorkshire more widely with Munn, Cotman returned to Brandsby alone and made a second visit to Rievaulx in August.

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The subject of the etching is the refectory doorway as seen from the cloister. Cotman sketched the subject in a fully-worked up watercolour now at the Tate, which is dated faintly in pencil ‘8 Augt 1803’.

Doorway of the Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey 1803 John Sell Cotman 1782-1842
Watercolour, 319 × 255 Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996

When Cotman issued his advertisement for the Etchings, he made the slightly peculiar claim that ‘The Whole will be Drawn from Nature.’  What he meant, presumably, was that the drawings on which the etchings were based were drawn from nature. As I suggested in Cotman in the North, however, the Tate watercolour is not perfectly straightforward in this regard. Although there is no problem with the pencil work – the drawing is inscribed ‘ivy’ on the upper wall and dated 8 August 1803 – it is not at all certain that the watercolour was added on the spot.

Quite the reverse in fact. In Cotman and North, I observed that where wash describes specific detail – the post holes for example – its accuracy is approximate at best. More generally, the washes seem arbitrary in relation to the structure. What happens, for example, above the drip course? Where are the first floor windows? Why is the back wall of the niche to the right so dark, as if it were a proper opening? The washes do remember the general colour relation of ochre and grey, but without remembering its distribution. In Cotman and the North I suggested that the washes were more mature in style than the date on the drawing. The use of negative space in the grasses is particularly artful, and suggestive of work from at least a year later. As I have had occasion to observe before on this website, artists are almost never so obligingly pure in their methodology as an art historian would like. The most likely scenario is that Cotman began the colouring from nature, and returned to it later –perhaps more than once.

Comparison of the watercolour and engraving shows how closely Cotman followed his original sketch, but also how he developed his interest in the vegetation and its graphic possibilities. Cotman made dozens of studies of plants and foliage during his career. It was a particular concern during his visits to Yorkshire between 1803 and 1805, but examples can be found from all periods of his career. The Leeds collection contains numerous examples, and it is worth giving a flavour of the variety here.

As I realised when working on Cotman in the North, the last of these examples offers a comic example of how seriously he took these studies. Having started the study of plants at Kirkstall on 28 July, he sought out the same plant eight weeks later on 21 September to return to his observations.

John Sell Cotman, Plant study, pencil on paper, 15.1 cm x 11.8 cm, Norwich Castle Museum

Another example at Norwich Castle Museum caused Miklos Rajnai to observe ‘The curious leaf forms, splodges tending towards triangular or heart shapes, which appear as early as 1803 in drawings such as Rievaulx Abbey in the Tate, become a recurring motif in the later watercolours.. Cotman’s acute observation in the field did no wane; he continued to make small intimate studies of plants. A collection of these in the V&A includes one which is copiously inscribed with colour notes and is dated 26th May 1823 [E662-1925].’ The Leeds collection includes examples dated to 1822. Clearly this aspect of Cotman’s practice might reward some more extended scholarly scrutiny.

Cotman constructed his artistic identity around attending to matter that that the majority would consider trivial. Rajnai quotes a letter of 18 August 1804 to his Yarmouth patron Dawson Turner, His principal purpose was to extol the virtues of Croyland Abbey in comparison to some other major architectural subjects including Howden, Peterborough and Castle Acre. Amidst all that, he turns to foliage as if it was an equally important part of his artistic agenda; ‘besides, – indeed – Sir I have found out more Leaves – of the kind I wanted to represent (I do not say I have represented them) – & some with the Stalks perpendicular & the Leaf Horizontal’.  Dawson Turner was an eminent botanist, and Cotman must surely have intended that his correspondent be amused by his enthusiasm.

The preceding sentence of the letter comments that Croyland Abbey is ‘Wonderful – there is not one upright line in the composition therefore let not the Botanists criticise when they come to see it if[?] they find me out of the perpendicular’. The ‘Botanists’ must be an allusion to Dawson Turner’s party whom Cotman had hoped to meet at Croyland, but the observation is significant for his particular appreciation of irregularity in pre-Renaissance architecture. His views anticipate those made famous by Ruskin half a century later in his book Stones of Venice. Later in the letter he dismisses Peterborough Cathedral: ‘Peterbro’ is too perfect for my pencil every architect can make a better Drawing from that than I can’. As he also says in the letter, he prefers to concentrate on details, door and windows; details of more modest scale and calculation. The leaves, only some of which achieve orthogonal regularity ‘with the Stalks perpendicular & the Leaf Horizontal’, generally assume form on more natural principles. Translated into his etching these forms express observation of nature, and demonstrate a certain vegetal esotericism. In short, a kind of herbaceous graffiti signature.

It seems significant that the refectory portals of Kirkham and Rievaulx constitute successive plates in the published order of the etchings. They were engraved a couple of months apart, Rievaulx on 13 November 1810, and Kirkham on 20 January 1811, but their conjunction in the final series seems to suggest some kind of programme on Cotman’s part. Perhaps we are meant to reflect on the sustenance promised within. Perhaps there is some contrast meant between the indulgence of the Augustinian decoration, and the asceticism of the Cistercian, or conversely that Kirkham seems a barren setting, and Rievaulx luxuriantly alive. At the very least we can certainly conclude that Cotman must have hoped that his audience might enjoy seeing where such musing might take them.

Summary of known states:

First published state

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 10.

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 292 x 218 mm on plate 305 x 227 mm on sheet 474 x 340 mm.

Inscribed on plate lower right ‘J S Cotman Del et Sc/ Norwich, Published Novr 13th 1810’ and lower left (much more faintly) ‘Rivaulx Abbey Yorks’. Author’s copy inscribed by the artist in lower margin in pencil, as called for in the printed list of subjects: ‘Rivaulx Abbey (Door)’

Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.12

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, ix.  Plate as 1811 edition except for addition of inscribed numeral ‘IX’ top centre, strengthening of title inscription lower centre and insertion of additional words following ‘Doorway to the Refectory’.

Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.12


Popham, 1922, no.11.

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