Plate 14: South side of Brayesworth Church, Suffolk [Braiseworth]

This is the seventeenth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings published in 1811. Here in plate 14 Cotman returns to one of the most obscure subjects of the series. It is the second of three plates devoted to the site.

John Sell Cotman
South side of Brayesworth Church, Suffolk, 1811
Private collection
Photograph: Professor David Hill

This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of a simple Romanesque portal consisting of a relatively plain arch decorated only with a few with incised rings, within a hood-mould consisting of two courses of projecting half-discs, known as ‘radial billet’. The subject is identified in a script inscription: ‘South side of Brayesworth Church/ Suffolk’.  In the foreground, a young woman sits enjoying the sunshine. Her cloak and bonnet is laid on a basket beside her, and she appears to be deep in pensive thought, with her thumb pressed to her lower lip.

The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 1 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 14 in the complete edition as published in 1811. It is the twenty-first plate of the series of twenty-four in date order, and confidently etched. There is a remarkably variety of graphic inventiveness and bravura. The shadow is particularly well given.  The crispness of the etching, however, was a little marred in the printing. The plate has to be wiped and re-inked between every impression, allowing inevitable opportunity for the plate to be scratched. Marks are plainly evident in the centre foreground and upper right, and persist throughout the editions.

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We have already noted under part 12 a variety of spellings of the place name. The current orthography is ‘Braiseworth’. 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 late 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 wilfulness is rendered all the more serious by the fact the site provoked three plates of a total of twenty-four (see also plates 12 and 21).

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The obscurity of the subject and the wilfulness of the choice is discussed under plate 12. As observed there, the Norman church that Cotman visited was replaced in 1857 by a new one a few hundred yards away. The Norman decorative features were dismantled and re-erected as part of the new structure.

.New St Mary’s Church, Braiseworth
Cotman’s portal is to the left.
Please note, this building is now a private house.
Image feed from Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture

The present portal was reused as the entrance to the porch. The ensemble survives today, but the church was deconsecrated in the 1970s and sold off as a private house. The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture website gives the history and a description and Simon Knott gives a personal account on his excellent Suffolk Churches website.

Image feed from Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture

The portals are significant examples of their genre and Cotman was proud to have found them out. Not long 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 details at Braiseworth Including ‘The South door, a Norman one peculiar to the County of Suffolk and Norfolk’ [Cholmeley archive, North Yorkshire CRO, Northallerton, ZQG, transcribed and reproduced by Mike Ashcroft and Adele Holcomb, Cotman in the Cholmeley Archive, NYCRO, pp. 42-43] . Sadly, Cotman’s original sketch of the south portal is lost but to judge from the precision with which the etching transmits its detail, must have been a careful piece of observation and recording.

Image feed from Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture

The distinguishing and local feature alluded to by Cotman is the double course of discs forming the drip moulding. This is known as radial billet, and The Corpus for Romanesque Sculpture says that similar detail ‘also appears at Redisham and Mettisham, some 17 miles away to the NE’.

The key element of the composition, however, is the figure. Evidently a working maid, with her pinafore and bobbed hair, she has found a sunny corner in which to hide herself and dream on far-off matters. It must be warm for she has doffed her bonnet and cloak. Beneath those we catch a glimpse of a large basket, so we might infer that she is enjoying a break from some errand that she should be performing.

John Sell Cotman
Seated Girl, c.1808-10
Pencil on paper 92 x 80 mm
Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : L1967.9.64

As Miklos Rajnai noted in his 1979 catalogue of Cotman: Early Drawings [no.116], the figure is based [in reverse] on a sketch at the Norwich Castle Museum. It is one of hundreds of small pencil studies of figures that Cotman accumulated in his lifetime. These are now scattered across numerous collections, but would make a fascinating study in their own right. In this case Cotman need not have sketched the figure on his visit to Braiseworth, although if February 15th enjoyed clear skies in 1811, the sun would certainly have been strong enough to enjoy.

Cotman made numerous subtle changes to the detail and pose of the figure. It is perhaps most instructive to start with the feet, which are outstretched in the etching. In the drawing the figure sits more upright, and takes more weight with one leg more obviously crossed over the knee. The pose in the etching is much more at rest. The girl in the drawing seems prepared to stand up at an instant.  In the drawing the figure’s left hand is visible, poised on the knee, but in the etching it dangles out of sight. As a result, there is a tension and preparedness in the drawing that is much reduced in the etching.  In the drawing the figure looks out at the viewer, meets and engages our gaze. In the etching the head is downtilted, the gaze averted; indeed the eyes may well be closed. She could almost be asleep.

Who knows what she might be dreaming of? But, as in the first plate of Braiseworth [plate 12], Cotman makes it seem as if those thoughts rise in whorls and swirls, coalescing into glyphs and signs. In much of his work, and perhaps all of it of serious affective interest, Cotman gives us details to muse on, and most often figures. So what might we take from this?

Firstly, that his human agenda in this subject is much stronger than the antiquarian. Despite the architectural context, the figure commands the principal attention. Second, that he had affective intent in developing the pose from sketch to etching. We need not wonder exactly what she is thinking, indeed that is entirely hers to know, but we can see that here mind is elsewhere, and by no means focused on her duties. On of the earliest things that we hear about Cotman’s life story is that he rejected his destined work in the family business to pursue a career in art. ‘Better let him black boots’, one adviser is reported to have told his father, ‘than let him become a painter’. The idea of an artist wilfully abandoning a proper career is a trope of Romanticism, and indeed the idea that the arts are not proper work is a still a trope today in philistine society and government.

As is usual in Cotman, there is a both self and social projection in the conception. There is a decided sympathy for the girl brooking her duties and dreaming of something else. Indeed one major theme in the developing nineteenth century was that change was bringing opportunity to transcend received social destiny. In those terms the ancient fabric of the portal serves as a sign of how much things have changed in history. This was a period of Revolutions and of Reactionary opposition. Here in his gentle way Cotman gives a glimpse of refusal and a dream of something new.  A detail of this figure would serve well as a frontispiece to the whole series, and say a good deal about the nature of the poetics being invoked.

Summary of known states:

First published state

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 14.

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 297 x 207 mm on plate 304 x 215 mm on sheet 474 x 340 mm.

On plate bottom left of subject in cursive script, ‘South side of Brayesworth Church/ Suffolk. Etched & Published by J. S. Cotman May 1st 1811.

Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.16

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

Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.16


Popham, 1922, no.16.

One thought on “Plate 14: South side of Brayesworth Church, Suffolk [Braiseworth]

  1. I have just got round to reading this posting, and once again noted your comprehensive inclusion of the many variations on the theme – so rewarding. I too wonder about how little Cotman comes away from a visit with his sketchbook, in comparison with JMWT’s voracious eye and rapid pencil. And of course the puzzle of the Munn / Cotman work relationship is ever present. One slight comment about the etching subject I have to make is on the figure of the seated maid, whose transformation and inner thoughts you have mused over. The figure seems to be a direct transcript from Joshua Cristall’s Girl seated at a well (Hastings) – a pencil drawing (1807) and watercolour (1810); both are now in the collection of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and are reproduced in I.Williams’ Early English Watercolours (ills 348-9). Despite the NCM drawing by Cotman, this Cristall figure seems to be Cotman’s source – complete with discarded bonnet and striped cloth – and she seems to be as wistful as Cotman’s, if not more so. I believe Cotman possessed Cristall drawings but can’t recall offhand where this is documented – one of the posthumous sales? Kitson thought that figures in The Harvest Pastoral might be based on Cristall figures.

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