Plate 12: West end of Braiseworth Church, Suffolk

This is the fifteenth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings published in 1811. Here in plate 12 Cotman introduces a subject that takes his quest for obscurity and sequestration almost to absurdity. It is the first of three plates devoted to the site.

John Sell Cotman
West End of Braiseworth Church, Suffolk, 1811
Private collection
Photograph: Professor David Hill

This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright architectural subject featuring a dilapidated Thatched porch, fronting onto the west end of a small, aisle-less church capped by a empty bell-cote. In front, a figure sits on the ground working on a sheet of paper or a slab of stone. To the left, two donkeys gaze out over an open landscape..

The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 13 April 1811 for his first series of ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’. This was issued to subscribers in parts, and the present subject formed plate 12 in the complete edition as published in 1811. It is the eighteenth plate of the series in date order, and confidently etched, and particularly well resolved with respect to the sky. There is, however, some confusion in evidence with regard to the place-name. In the etched inscription Cotman gives it as ‘Braysworth’. In the pencil inscription it appears as ‘Bravesworth’, and in the printed list of subjects accompanying the published volume as ‘Brayesworth’. To cap it all, the modern spelling is different again; ‘Braiseworth’.

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Spelling notwithstanding, the title inscription identifies a sketching visit to the site on 15 February 1811. Braiseworth is 30 miles or so south of Norwich, a little way east of the Ipswich road. It would have been a long day’s excursion from Norwich, so this was no idle undertaking. It was also winter, so even if pleasant, certainly not balmy. It is a fairly remarkable excursion if made from Norwich specially, but even as part of a trip to a more distant destination it seems a questionable diversion. The diversion is rendered all the more curious by the fact the site provoked three plates of a total of twenty-four (see also plates 14 and 21).

At the time of the visit he was thinking, no doubt, about what subjects might complete his collection. He had engraved just over half the proposed total of 24 plates, the most recent being Howden which is dated 5 February (eventually issued as plate 23), and the next being St Botolphs, Colchester, dated 20 February (pl.24 as issued). He plainly had no shortage of subjects or sketches to choose from, so the question must arise as to why he thought this site deserved three plates. The Norman portals treated in the other two Braiseworth subjects are not uninteresting but there is a positive cornucopia of such subjects in East Anglia.

Given that he had just finished Howden, one of the grandest subjects in the whole set, and must have been working on St Botolphs at the time of the sketching trip (in fact possibly he had been to Colchester to check details of the latter), it was quite plainly a considered move to turn to such unexalted material, and a site so deeply sequestered in his native landscape.

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Even in its pomp Braiseworth Old Church was almost laughably devoid of any claim to significance. The church, so much as we can see it at all inn Cotman’s composition, is small and undistinguished, and by most standards would be considered entirely disfigured is by its porch. Quite why the addition had to be so large is unclear, and still more so the question of why it became the object of the artist’s attention, and thus ours. It is a legitimate question to enquire of the artist’s rationale (and almost his rationality) given that he evidently thought it sufficiently worthwhile as to have gone to spend a day sketching there in the middle of February!

Today, the old church is approached down the track leading to Priory Farm, and reduced to little more than a shed (although it has enjoyed some degree of maintenance) and the churchyard and its graves are given over to grazing, which is presided over according to a recent report (see below), by an aggressive ram. Permission should be sought from the farm if access to the graveyard might be required. I am hoping to visit at some stage this year, but for now here is an image posted by Adrian S Pye to the geograph website.

The story of the church is one of relentlessly advancing redundancy. Simon Knott describes it [and the ram] on his wonderful Suffolk Churches website. The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture website gives the official history and description. When it was built in the twelfth century there must have been a significant community occupying and working the land here, and a worthwhile congregation. Over the centuries the population dwindled away, and by the time Cotman visited it was just about moribund. In the mid-nineteenth century a new church was built on the road about half a mile away. The Norman porches [and evidently the bell-cote, though this is not mentioned by the Corpus website] were carried off to the new church, and the old church, and graveyard, was incorporated into the priory farm.  The story of decline was continued even at the new church, which was deconsecrated in the 1990s and is now a private house. The Norman material is still in situ, and is recorded in the Corpus of Romanesque sculpture website, but the guidance there and on the Suffolk churches website, is to respect the house owners’ privacy. We will do our best to give the portals some consideration in parts 14 and 21 to follow.

The portals as we shall see are significant examples of their genre and Cotman was especially proud of having found them out. Immediately after the visit he wrote to his Yorkshire friend and patron Francis Cholmeley at Brandsby Hall to enthuse that he had found out some interesting architectural detail at Braiseworth and even included a sketch:

‘I have met with a curious specimen of architecture in a doorway which I shall give you in a succeeding number. The Norman ornament, zig-zag &c, on a pointed arch, and the whole genuine.’

His tone suggests that he thought it a real discovery. Certainly no previous depictions of Braiseworth come readily to hand. How he came upon it, we do not know, but Cotman positioned himself as a pioneer, like a botanist in a far country, stumbling upon an unknown bloom. The sequestration of the site, the unprepossessing building, the general state of forlorn neglect, the donkeys that have brought him here, all argue the intrepidness of his journey to the outlands.

The key figure in the image is the explorer at work on site. Admittedly it is difficult to make out quite what the work is. The figure holds what appears to be a brush and applies it (somewhat ham-fistedly) to a surface, although whether a slab of stone or a sheet of paper is unclear.

The figure communicates a strong sense of being absorbed in the work. This is most certainly a self-projection of the artist in his own best place. Immersed in thought and rapt in the act of inscription. That, more than anything is the main subject of the engraving. It is as if the work of inscription emanates out of him and swirls upwards and across the sheet in wraiths. Despite the anti-heroism of the subject-matter, it is the occasion of a graphic tour-de-force. No etcher ever indulged their cuts such exaggerated freedom, nor exercised such frank artfulness with the core graphic processes. Unheralded, largely unseen, and completely unrecognised, Cotman made something entirely of his own in the medium.

Summary of known states:

First published state

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 12.

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 296 x 205 mm on plate 304 x 217 mm on sheet 474 x 340 mm.

On plate bottom left of subject ‘West End of Braysworth Church Suffolk / Sketched Febry 15th 1811. Etched and Published April 13th 1811 by J. S. Cotman’. The plates in the 1811 collected edition also inscribed by the artist in pencil below image, ‘Bravesworth Church – west end/ Suffolk’, as called for in the printed list of subjects

Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.14

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, xix.  Plate unchanged from  1811 edition except for addition of numeral inscribed ‘XIX’ top centre of plate margin.

Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.14


Popham, 1922, no.14.

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