Plate 13: West Front of Byland Abbey, Yorkshire

This is the sixteenth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings published in 1811. Here in plate 13 Cotman deviates from his usual tendency by selecting a well-known subject, and what is more, treating it from a recognisable point of view.

John Sell Cotman
West Front of Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, 1811
Private collection
Photograph: Professor David Hill

This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright architectural subject featuring the ‘WEST FRONT of BYLAND ABBEY, YORKS’. The front has a large central portal flanked by two aisle portals. Above the central portal is a row of blind and open lancets, surmounted by the lower half of a large rose window, its tracery gone. There are hills beyond the abbey to the left, and birds wheeling in the sky. In the right foreground are some blocks and supports indicating some work in progress, and beyond, propped against the south aisle portal, a stack of rough timbers.

The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 6 May 1811 for his first series of ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’. This was issued to subscribers in parts, and the present subject formed plate 13 in the complete edition as published in 1811. It is the twenty-second plate in date order of the series of twenty-four, and certainly one of the best-resolved of all. It is one of the most directly and economically conceived and contains no trace of over-elaboration.

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Byland Abbey is about twenty miles north of York, a mile and a half beyond the village of Coxwold. An itinerant community of Savigniac monks settled here as members of the Cictercian family in about 1150, and developed the site and great church over the next forty years. Upon its completion it was over 100m long, and the largest in the country. At its height it rivalled its fellow Yorkshire Abbeys Rievaulx and Fountains in power and wealth. Started slightly later than those, it was also the more modern in style, representing the transition from the Romanesque rounded arch to the pointed Gothic.

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Cotman’s subject is the west front as seen arriving by road from Coxwold. The remains survive almost exactly as Cotman saw them.

Cotman visited Byland in 1803 during his first tour to Yorkshire. His principal base in Yorkshire was Brandsby Hall the home of the Cholmeley family. This stands about ten miles north of York, and Byland is an easy excursion from there. His first encounter occurred sometime between 11 and 13 July in the company of fellow-artist Paul Sandby Munn, who accompanied him on the first part of the tour. He returned to sketch with members of the Cholmeley family on 13 August and he returned in the company of Francis Cholmeley for a final visit that season on 7 September. The latter appears to have been Cotman’s first excursion in the sole company of Francis Cholmeley, who had been away from Brandsby for most of the summer. The documentation of these visits is reviewed in Cotman in the North (Yale UP 2005) p.48 ff, but only one sketch from any of them appears to survive.

Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, 7 September 1803
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 330 x 262 mm
National Museum of Wales, Cardiff NMW A 5242

That, however, is of almost exactly the same view as the engraving, and appears to have been coloured from nature. Cotman in the North relates that the Cholmeley family observed Cotman colouring a sketch at Byland on the visit of 13 August and it is possibly the same work that he finished on 7 September.

John Sell Cotman
Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, 1804
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 348 x 270 mm
Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1951.235.129

The following year Cotman elaborated the composition into a finished watercolour. The purchaser was Sir Henry Englefield who had introduced Cotman to his sister Teresa Cholmeley at Brandsby. He had a particular interest in the subject, for two decades earlier he had supplied a drawing of Byland to the artist Thomas Hearne, as the basis of a composition for Hearne’s groundbreaking series of engravings of ‘Antiquities of Great Britain’ published in 1786.

Thomas Hearne and William Byrne after Sir Henry Englefield
Byland Abbey, 1786
Engraving published in ‘Antiquities of Great Britain’

In 1808 Cotman exhibited a ‘Byland Abbey; coloured sketch’ at the Norwich Society of Artists. It seems possible, even likely, that this was the watercolour dated 7 September above.

John Sell Cotman
Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, c.1809
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 521 x 435 mm
Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1947.217.233

Exhibiting the sketch seems to have brought the subject back into Cotman’s attention for not long afterwards he developed the most monumental of his watercolour treatments thus far. This descended in the Cholmeley family until 1938 when it was sold through the London dealers Agnew’s to R.J.Colman and subsequently given to Norwich Castle Museum. It is not known exactly when it entered the Cholmeley collection, but the general scholarly consensus around the date is c.1809, and Sydney Kitson speculated that it might have been a wedding present from Cotman to Francis Cholmeley who inherited Brandsby on the death of his father in 1808 and married Barbara Darrell on 22 August of the following year. Whilst he was writing his Life of John Sell Cotman, Kitson corresponded with the scholar and collector Paul Oppe, and a letter from Oppe to Kitson of 15 July 1929 survives bound into one of Kitson’s ‘Cotmania’ notebooks at Leeds Art Gallery (vol. III, p.30 recto). Oppe remarks: ‘I hadn’t then however a clue as to its date but I think that you are perfectly right. It is obviously a wedding present: it has all the characteristics of a wedding cake, even of a whole wedding breakfast. Psychologically it is of the utmost importance. It shows Cotty’s over-response to any favourable stimulus.’ Whether as gift or purchase, Cotman put his utmost into the work. He would have associated Byland with the beginnings of his friendship with Francis, and possibly hoped that it would inspire his regular and consistent patronage. If so, his hopes were to be disappointed.

To tell the truth, Francis seems never to have shown any particular identification with Cotman’s art. Kitson and Oppe, however, thought Byland a masterpiece, the latter calling it ‘the most sensational and overpowering of all Cotman’s known work’ [quoted from the Burlington Magazine, Aug 1945, p.196 by Miklos Rajnai, in Norwich Castle Museum, Cotman Early Drawings, where no.85]. The scholars’ admiration must have communicated itself to its then owner Hugh Fairfax Cholmeley, for Kitson reported on 30 May 1930 [‘Cotmania’ vol.IV, p.26 recto] ‘Finberg told me he had heard from Alfred Powell that Cholmeley wishes to sell his ‘Byland Abbey’ for 1,000£!’ Kitson might well have been surprised at the asking price. In 1930 £1000 would have bought a house in the London suburbs that might well fetch £1m today. As it turned out Cholmeley eventually settled for a lesser, but nonetheless goodly, sum. Rajnai tells us that Russell Colman gave £725 for it in February 1938. Colman seems to have been one of the rare collectors blessed with both a sense of Cotman’s importance and the means to prove it in the marketplace.

Cotman exhibited some version of the subject at the Norwich Society of Arts in 1811. It is not known what this was, but some discussion of this, and of a few cognate subjects, can be found in a postscript at the end of this article. In any event, we can say that by the time Cotman selected Byland for his series of Etchings, there was hardly another subject in his entire oeuvre in which he was so heavily invested. He must have felt that it would be something of a flagship for the series, and also been aware of the aesthetic challenge of etching a subject that he had previously carried off so well in the Cholmeley watercolour. Miklos Rajnai shared the enthusiasm for the watercolour: Comparing it to the Englefield watercolour of 1804 [Norwich Castle Museum, Cotman: Early Drawings, no.85] he says: ‘The refined delicacy of the earlier version pales besides the robust monumentality of the later work.’ In the etching Cotman had none of the tools of density of colour and tone that he had at his disposal in the watercolour, simply line, but the restricted means focus the attention entirely on his powers of draftsmanship and design. Byland is the most sparing and refined design of the whole series, clean, crisp and decisive in the quality of its line, and judicious in its elimination of almost everything extraneous to the simple architectural mass.

Cotman has even eliminated his usual figurative interest. Nonetheless the composition is not without human interest. Apart from a well-established complex of ideas woven around the ruin, there is also a by-work in the blocks and timbers to the right in front of the south aisle portal. These signal a rather lower order of work than that of the abbey, very much more bodge and mend than building. The timbers themselves seem to be a ramshackle assortment, salvaged for recycling, and awaiting not planned construction so much as patching up.

We might take this to be no more than a commonplace contrast with former glories, except for the fact that such propped timbers are a distinctly recurrent motif in Cotman. They crop up in all manner of works. The subject is plainly worthy of extended study, and indeed a few years ago a Fine Art graduate at Leeds University, Stephen Clatworthy, researched the topic for his dissertation. One observation that he made was that it was undoubtedly a self-identification. A Cot-Man, being a dweller in a ‘cot’ i.e a simple, even rude, shelter, hence ‘cottage’.

There are dozens of variations on this theme, but for present purposes we need only look back to the Cholmeley Byland. The foreground presents us with a whole array of rude timbers being collected by a couple of cottagers. It is worth admitting that the figures are somewhat comic. At this time Cotman seems to have developed a distinctly idiosyncratic style of figure drawing: like puppet dwarves that have been glued in position, or somehow come loose from their strings. It would be altogether worth making a systematic study of Cotman’s figures, but here, like the propped timbers in the etching, they stand for a much simpler, less organised and less capable economy than that which built the abbey. They are truly Mr and Mrs Cot-Man and their dwelling by implication is that hunkered amongst the foliage in front of the abbey. Remembering Kitson’s suggestion that the watercolour was made in 1809 as a wedding present for Francis Cholmeley, it is perhaps worth recalling that the Cholmeleys were not the only ones to be married that year: Cotman married Anne Miles of Felbrigg on 6 January.

However deep the personal resonances might run, there is also a public statement being made. Cotman takes the clichéd bathos of the grand structure laid low, and of the contrast between the grand and rude, but gives this a twist by aligning his own direct and simplified manner with his social subjects. There is an identification with the simple life that was clearly intended to play into the complex of thought and feeling bound up in industrialisation, urbanisation and rapidly shifting focuses of political, social, technological and aesthetic economy. There might even be a quite radical proposition being implied. Here the abbey represents a former fulcrum of political economy, now abandoned to neglect and ruination. Such a motif might conventionally at that time be taken as a warning to guard against complacency in human endeavour, and as a spur to greater industry. It might, conversely, be taken as a good. No matter how strongly flow the tides of development, they inevitably turn to the ebb. To anyone concerned about the destructive power of ‘progress’, these images might well serve as an antidote, and a consolation.

The difficulty for Cotman was that the aesthetic form of such negotiation needs generally to run on the same rails as the forces of change. Cotman, however, in his reductive modes in both watercolour and etching, jumped the tracks. The art also needed to operate in the key nodes of that network, so Cotman had to be in London, rather than in Norwich. And it had to reach those most invested in promoting the new traffic, not just provincial squires, merchants and reverends. It had to become part of the conversation and consciousness around change, and to achieve that, it had to wait until the 1920s and 30s. Another century on, perhaps it is time for it to enter the conversation once again.

Summary of known states:

First published state

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 13.

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 295 x 216 mm on plate 303 x 226 mm on sheet 474 x 340 mm.

On plate bottom centre of subject WEST FRONT of BYLAND ABBEY: YORKS/ Etched & Published May 5th 1811 by J S Cotman, Norwich’.

Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.15

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, xi.  Plate extensively reworked from the 1811 edition, adding texture to most of the blank areas of the front, solidifying the darks in all apertures, and reworking sections of foliage [occasionally heavily] in the mid distance and bottom left to add relief and contrast. The numeral ‘XI’ inscribed top centre of plate margin.

Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.15


Popham, 1922, no.15.

Postscripts and afterthoughts:

1811 exhibit.

The identification of the Norwich Society of Artists exhibit no.58 ‘West Front of Byland Abbey, Yorkshire’ is uncertain. We may surmise that it was the same composition as the etching, for it shares the same title as the plate, and many of Cotman’s exhibits this year were selected to promote his new series.  There are several possibilities. The Cholmeley Byland is one. Cotman would surely have wanted to show it, and this appears to provide the only occasion. A drawing that served as the basis of the etching is another and perhaps the most likely. There are two pencil drawings (see below) that might feasibly be candidates, but neither has quite the quality or the character that one might expect. The final possibility is that it was an impression of the etching. The NSA catalogues generally say if the work is a print.

Storks over Byland

Readers will no doubt have noticed the two birds flying overhead in the Cholmeley watercolour. In his 1979 Norwich catalogue of Cotman: Early Works (no.85) Miklos Rajnai commented on them as proof that Cotman had already been exposed to Japanese or Chinese designs. That seems both significant and likely but it does occur to me that there might be some personal allusion intended. Rajnai calls the birds cranes, and my ornithology is not sufficient to challenge that, but herons would be most likely in the area today, and storks might also be possible. One does not, however, have to apply strict naturalistic probabilities to Cotman’s imagination. These birds do, after all, appear to be an afterthought and were clearly painted over an already completed sky. Storks, I am minded are traditional harbingers of childbirth. By 1811 Mrs Barbara Cholmeley had given Francis two children, the first named after his father in 1810 and the second named after her mother in 1811. Sentimental, I know, but Cotman was never reticent in such matters.

Engraved titles

It is by no means insignificant that this plate has a prominent engraved title. I intend to develop the discussion of this aspect in relation to plate 14 Braiseworth: South Porch. For now it is perhaps sufficient to say that it dawned quite late on Cotman that it would be useful to incorporate the title into the design. The first appears over halfway through the engraved order, and he was left with the chore of writing the titles by hand in pencil in the lower margins of very many. It is a boon for us to have his autographic touch on many of these subjects, but it must have been something of an irksome labour for him.

Versions and variations

There are a few variations of the subject that we should note for the sake of completeness.

The Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, U.S.A. has two monochrome studies, both currently [2 February 2022] attributed in the Center’s online catalogue to an ‘imitator of John Sell Cotman’.

John Sell Cotman
West Front of Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, c.1808
Grey wash and graphite on medium, slightly textured, beige laid paper, 213 x 159 mm
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA, Paul Mellon Collection B1975.4.

The first of these is a variation of the same south-west view of the west front as the etching. This was sold as by John Sell Cotman at Sotheby’s 20 Nov 1963 no.38 and bought by Colnaghi for Paul Mellon. It was reattributed in April 1982 following comments by Michael Pidgley recorded in the museum’s files. He remarked particularly on the uncertainty of the forms at the right. Whilst I can see the justness of the criticism, the pencil work and the handling of negative spaces in the washes strikes me as being very skilful indeed. When I examined the work at Yale in 1999 I could not see any obvious reason to doubt it. On close examination the washes are crackled on the paper rather beautifully, and this is typical of an approach adopted in many works from the period of his residence in Norwich 1806-1811.  A monochrome of Bolton Abbey for example, also at Yale, is universally accepted, and compares very favourably with the present example.

This composition includes a large stack of masonry to the left of the west front. This does not have any counterpart in reality, nor any counterpart in the pencil underdrawing. The only other composition which includes any such feature is the 1804 Englefield watercolour at Norwich Castle Museum (see above). There, however, the feature is more subdued which might suggest that the Yale study follows that in the sequence. The pencil work in this composition is by far the most careful and sensitive of any of the Bylands. It contains information, for example with regard to the south aisle window, which does not appear in the earlier versions such as that dated 1803 at the National Museum of Wales (see above). The line of the background hill has begun to be lowered and the whole building begins to take on the stockier proportions of the Cholmeley watercolour and the etching.

John Sell Cotman
The South Transept of Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, c.1804 or 1805
Grey wash and graphite on medium, slightly textured, beige laid paper, 352 x 254 mm
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA, Paul Mellon Collection B1975.4.1081

The second of the Yale monochromes can here be identified as the south transept as seen from the west portal. This presents a different take on Byland from any of those seen before. Like the first, this was also sold by Colnaghi to Paul Mellon as an autograph work by John Sell, and has subsequently fallen out of favour. When I examined it in 1999, it certainly seemed that it has less quality in its washes than the Yale West Front. It is however, more than twice the size and in that compares with the Yale monochrome of Bolton Abbey. The figures in the larger monochromes are very similar. Both the present composition and that of Bolton struck me as certainly authentic but the present work as earlier in date. Cotman’s approach to the site here, however, in choosing to record this rather unedifying, and hardly distinctive profile, whilst standing in the doorway of the celebrated west front, is typically oblique.  Given Cotman’s inclination to obtuseness in many of the earlier etchings, it is something of surprise that he did not select this subject ahead of the west front.

I must also mention an untraced subject that is described by W.F.Dickes in his book The Norwich School of Painting, 1905, p.257: ‘The sunlit ruin towers against the sky and a steep hillside; its foot in shadow. A few cows standing apparently in water are in front. This is a charmingly delicate sketch in silver-grey and gold. The cows sharply wiped out.’ This sounds similar to the monochrome study of the West Front at Yale, but that does not have any cows.

In addition to these, there are two pencil drawings known.

John Sell Cotman
The West Front of Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, c.1835
Graphite on paper watermarked ‘J WHATMAN / TURKEY MILL / 1825’, 12 1/2 x 8 1/2 ins, 326 x 220 mm
Courtauld Institute of Art, London, Spooner Bequest, D.1967.WS.19
[Image scanned by Professor David Hill from an old black and white photo]

The first was given in 1967 to the Courtauld Institute of art by the collector William Spooner. This is on paper watermarked ‘J WHATMAN / TURKEY MILL / 1825’, proving a date later in Cotman’s career. The style suggests a relation to the series of drawings made from 1834 onwards for Cotman’s students to study and copy at King’s College, London. Cotman began this series in 1809 and added to it at intervals throughout his career. The drawings were numbered in the range 1-4000+ but the chronology of the numeration is as yet poorly understood. This is numbered 2492 and most of the proximate drawings in the numerical sequence appear to date from about 1835. This was a particularly busy period as Cotman increased the resources that he could put before his students at King’s College. Some proportion of the drawings are doubtless by Cotman himself, but many were added by his sons Miles Edmund and John Joseph, or even his daughter Anne.

The composition is evidently derived, and even traced, from the 1811 etching, but the composition differs in some details especially in the foreground and background, where the hill to the left has been eliminated and a mass of masonry has been invented to the right. The draftsmanship is firm and confident, and not without panache. An attribution to John Sell Cotman is worth retaining for if it were by one of Cotman’s family assistants, then the least one can say is that the studio brand was in very capable hands.

After John Sell Cotman
The West Front of Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, c.1835
Graphite on paper 12 ½ x 9 ¼ ins.
Untraced after Christie’s 17 May 1966, lot 71.
[Image scanned by Professor David Hill from an old black and white photo]

A close variant of the Courtauld composition was sold at Christie’s in 1966. This follows the details diligently but hesitantly, and [working from the reproduction] appears nowhere to possess the confidence or dynamism of the Courtauld drawing. It is perhaps exactly what one might expect an attentive student to have achieved in one of Cotman’s King’s College classes.

If readers see any omissions from this list, or can suggest additions and improvements, please do make use the comments box below to share information.

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