Plate 11: Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire; the interior of the Refectory

This is the fourteenth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings published in 1811. Here in plate 11 Cotman offers us a third subject at Rievaulx Abbey; more obscure, even, than the others.

John Sell Cotman
Rievaulx Abbey, the interior of the Refectory, Yorkshire 1811
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 tall lancet window in a deep recess, part of a tall block of masonry, covered in ivy. A steep slope of debris descends from the window into the foreground. Near the top is a child with tousled hair, kneeling, facing away left, next to a small collie dog. The left foreground is filled with foliage, possibly of laurel. Birds wheel in the sky above a bank of cloud.

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 11 in the complete edition as published in 1811. One of three plates (with Kirkham Priory and Easby Abbey) all with the same date. The previous plate in date order is that of Beeston Priory of 24 November 1810, which was the ninth overall. There is no trace here of anything but crisp confidence and sense of purpose in his project.

A proof impression was presented by Cotman to Francis Cholmeley inscribed ‘A proof presented with the greatest respect by the Author’ and ‘Part of the Refectory Rievaulx Abbey Yorks’, but is otherwise identical to the plate as editioned.

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This is the third Rievaulx subject in the series. We introduced Rievaulx in relation to the first,  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. They made a brief tour from Brandsby 9-10 July 1803, staying at Helmsley. Mr 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. On the latter occasion he sketched the entrance to the refectory etched in plate 10. In the present subject he enters into the refectory, but no on the spot drawing or studio version has to date been identified.

Even within the refectory, the subject is far from obvious. Looking through the portal, it is the mid-section of the right-hand wall.

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Cotman’s exact viewpoint is against the south wall, looking up to the remains of the spiral staircase [centre left] that once led up to the pulpitum. From there prayers, thanksgivings and lessons could be intoned during mealtimes. Alan Sorrell drew a fine reconstruction for the 1986 issue of the guidebook of what such a scene might have been like about 1250. Cotman’s viewpoint would be to the left, looking right:

Sadly when I visited in June 2021, the floor of the refectory was closed to public access whilst parts of the surviving structure were stabilised, so the nearest comparison that I could photograph was from more-or less directly opposite, through one of the lancet windows.

The comparison, is sufficiently close, however, to see that the detail is recorded accurately, but selectively in that the wall is in fact a continuous range, whereas Cotman here isolates just one element. It is possible that he misinterpreted whatever sketch he made on the spot.

In other respects, however, the etching contains valuable information. The refectory is shown full of debris, and the floor level has since been cleared down to the sub-vault.

As is usual with Cotman, the figure is worth consideration. We have a tousled-haired child kneeling on the slope beneath the pulpitum. It is perhaps a little uncertain, but since the figure is wearing breeches it must presumably be a boy, but dressed in a neck-fastening tunic, open at the back. The child’s pose reminds us of prayer, appropriately for the site, but the context here is untroubled, although the figure for the moment seems rapt upon the building rearing up in front. Meanwhile a dog sits closely by, gazing up into the child’s face. It is an affecting contrast of focus. The dog rapt solely on the child, but the latter on broader matters. Contemplating the ruins immediately in front, but through them structures of more general significance. It is must be a further part of Cotman’s implication that such matters need not be the things after which attention generally runs, nor epic in extent. Modest singularities may nonetheless open onto sublimities. These are subjects of which the dog has no inkling, but which will perhaps come to form an avocation for the child. Cotman might well have been recalling his own awakening to such matters.

Summary of known states:

First published state

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 11.

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 288 x 198 mm on plate 305 x 203 mm on sheet 474 x 340 mm.

Lower centre left, squeezed in between the foliage and the plate edge: ‘Norwich Etched & Published by J S Cotman Jany 20th 1811’. Prints from the collected 1811 edition also bear a very faint title inscription at the very lower left edge of the plate, ‘Rivaulx Abbey, Yorks’. In the impression reproduced here, this looks as if it has been erased. In another at Bradford Art Gallery (1926-116), however, it is more distinct. In the Cholmeley proof it is missing. The prints in the collected edition of 1811 are also inscribed by the artist in graphite below subject ‘Rivaulx Abbey – Refectory/ Yorks’, as called for in the printed list of subjects.

Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.13

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, x.  Plate as 1811 edition except for addition of inscribed numeral ‘X’ top centre, and new title: ‘Rivaulx Abby [sic] Yorks part of a range of windows’.

Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.13


Popham, 1922, no.13.

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