Plate 15, A Garden House on the banks of the river Yare, Norfolk

This is the eighteenth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings published in 1811. Here in plate 15 Cotman provides one of the most obtuse, yet most poetic, subjects of the series.

John Sell Cotman
A Garden House on the banks of the river Yare, 1811
Private collection
Photograph: Professor David Hill

This is a line etching of a hexagonal pavilion with a pyramidal roof, built into a garden wall overlooking a river. There is a young man seated on the riverbank in the left foreground and steps leading up to the left to a wall surmounted by a sculpture of a recumbent lion. Below to the right is a brick arch, possibly the entrance to a culvert or perhaps a boathouse, with a rowing boat tethered at the entrance.  The etching is lettered on the plate, at the bottom left of subject, on a scroll : ‘A Garden House, on the banks / of the river Yare. Sketched in 1800’.

The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 5 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 15 in the complete edition as published in 1811. It is the seventeenth plate of the series of twenty-four in date order, and cleanly and confidently etched. The surface of the water is particularly deft.

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The exact location is not stated on the etching, but the description given in the printed list of subjects that Cotman provided in the complete edition of 1811 calls it ‘A Garden House at Norwich, on the Banks of the River Yare’. That narrows down the search area considerably. The Yare runs a couple of miles south of the city of Norwich, and in 1800, the date of Cotman’s original sketch according to the engraved inscription, one of the few areas of Norwich that could have had established gardens running down to the Yare was that of Thorpe St Andrew, about two miles east of the city. This stretch of river attracted the villas of the wealthy of Norwich from at least the middle ages onwards. Some years after the publication of the etching, Cotman’s father retired there from his business in town.

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A pavilion overlooking the river was a common feature of Dutch gardens, and numerous examples survive. They were also popular on the Thames. Their heyday in the Netherlands was the seventeenth century, and on the Thames probably in the eighteenth. The example in Cotman’s etching looks from its dilapidation as if it must date from no later than the seventeenth century. The most prominent house on the Yare of such antiquity is Thorpe Hall, and it seems a reasonable speculation that the Cotman’s might have found his summerhouse there.

Image source: Norfolk Museums online

We do know that there were several such pavilions on the Yare at Thorpe during the nineteenth century for a lithograph from that time shows three in close proximity.

Postcard from c.1910? Image source: Broadland Memories

At least one of these survives at the foot of the gardens of Walpole House [no.16 Yarmouth Road] next door to the present Town House pub and restaurant. It is visible, largely covered in ivy, at the centre of this early twentieth century postcard, where Walpole House is at the left, and the buildings that became the pub extend across the centre. The photograph was taken before today’s large trees obscured almost all sight of the gazebo except from the water. This photograph is important, however, for recording a second gazebo, further along the river, that bears more than a tantalising resemblance to Cotman’s, except for the apparently thatched roof. By the time that the scene was photographed again in 1922, the Walpole House gazebo had been cleared of its ivy, but the hexagonal gazebo seems to have been replaced by a Moorish dome! The hexagonal gazebo visible in the postcard given here stands below the house immediately to the right of Walpole House, now no.18 Yarmouth Road. It is perhaps something of a coincidence that this is the house to which Cotman’s father retired.

Such structures seem to have been popular at Thorpe. Another survives, though not on the river but on the Yarmouth Road. This is known as Harvey’s observatory, after John Harvey in whose grounds, Thorpe Lodge, it was built in the late 1700s and where he kept a telescope. For further interest, Thorpe St Andrew has an active historical society and the local landscape character assessment is available online.

John Sell Cotman
An Old Tea House on the river Yare, ?c.1809
Pencil and grey watercolour, 7 3/8 x 4 ¾ ins; 188 x 121 mm
With Agnew’s, London, 1996
Image scanned by Professor David Hill from Agnew’s 1996 catalogue

The etching enjoyed a long period of gestation. Cotman’s inscription states that he sketched the subject in 1800. No such sketch is known, but in 1996 the London dealers Agnew’s exhibited a a small wash drawing as no.26, ‘An Old Tea House on the Yare’. Agnew’s noted the date ‘1800’ inscribed on the back of the mount, but resisted the temptation to identify their watercolour as the original sketch alluded to by Cotman. That would be problematic. The style sits uneasily with the inscribed date. It perhaps most closely relates to his style in the period c.1808-10, but [admittedly working now from faint memory and the reproduction] Cotman’s handling is usually more refined and considered. The composition is nonetheless interesting. It appears to have rather more topographic simplicity than does the fully evolved composition in the etching, and must be closer to the original observation than any of those. The differences between the windows – these look up and down the river as the building was no doubt supposed to, whereas those in the later composition are reduced, presumably with poetic intent.

John Sell Cotman
An Old Tea House on the river Yare, 1802
Pencil and watercolour, 9 13/16 x 7 ½ ins, 250 x 190 mm
Sold at Bonham’s, London, 19 November 2013, no.13
Image courtesy of Bonhams

The earliest treatment certainly by Cotman is a watercolour dated 1802 that was sold at Bonhams in London on 19 November 2013, as no.13 ‘The old tea house on the banks of the River Yare’. This must originally have enjoyed a full range of colour and would have been dominated by rich blues and greens, but has faded over time, as most other Cotmans of this period, to reds and greys. It is almost the antithesis of the Agnew’s watercolour in terms of emotional temper, embroiling the poor pavilion in a positive gale of gothic fantasy. It is as if only the breeze prevents it from falling into the river. The cocked finial is a wonderfully pathetic detail.

The date places it amongst the work with which, at twenty years of age, he was attempting to establish his London career. He invested a good deal in the sublime, with Welsh subjects and seascapes, and perhaps was also making a pitch for the illustrative potential of his work. This subject might well have done service in one of the popular Gothic novels of the day. Any personal significance is perhaps less overt, but the Norwich of his boyhood was changing, not altogether successfully as it turned out, from a long-established agricultural and merchant economy to the industrial age. It seems obvious that the Yare summer house that Cotman drew in 1800 was in a state of advanced decay. I am minded of my own roaming through the past. In late 1950s east Leeds, the dairy farms that formerly surrounded the city had been swallowed up by council estates and new middle-class housing. But they were still there, abandoned, tucked in behind the shops of Cross Gates and the working mens’ clubs. I remember climbing up old barn ladders into decaying hay lofts. I survived to tell the tale, and so evidently (quite startlingly) did one of the ladders. Perhaps it was the same for Cotman, clambering up into the derelict pavilion. It took a while for it to register with me how deep were the changes being traversed.

John Sell Cotman
A Garden House on the banks of the river Yare, c.1809-10
Watercolour, 11 7/8 x 8 7/8 ins, 302 x 225 mm
Sold at Christie’s, London, 16 November 2006 no.61
Image courtesy of Christie’s

Cotman returned to the subject a few years later in a series of three watercolours that culminated in the etching. The first is a watercolour that was sold at Christie’s in 2006 as ‘A garden house on the banks of the river Yare’.  This can be considered the prime version of the three on the basis of its inscription ‘824’. This number places it among the series of drawings that Cotman placed at the disposal of his students. The first set of nine hundred drawings was assembled in 1809. More work is required to ascertain what might be the chronological significance of the numbers, but it would appear from a little investigation that the majority of works in this part of the sequence date from about 1809.

The composition eliminates the turbulent Gothicism of the 1802 composition, and replaces it with a very much more pastoral lyricism. The summer-house, though showing signs of advanced age – peeling laths, gently sagging roof timbers and foundations, missing chunks of cornice – is by no means a lost cause – its finial stands proudly erect – and simply requires more attention than it has evidently been receiving. Unlike the earlier drawing, Cotman invests the whole structure with architectural solidity, carefully handled difficulties of form and perspective, and confidently understood detail. As well as having poetry, it also has measure, and confidence of conception and delineation.

The composition boasts some new features in comparison to the 1802 watercolour. To the left of the pavilion Cotman has introduced the statue of a recumbent lion. The form is reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian temple lion. One of the British Museum’s famous Prudhoe lions is similar enough to provide an analogy if not a source. The Prudhoe lions were not ‘discovered’ until the 1830s. Interest in Egyptian sculpture had endured since classical times, but had been given new impetus by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, subsequent defeat in 1801, and surrender of a priceless hoard of antiquities which were subsequently brought to Britain. It might be possible for subsequent research to identify a specific source for this detail, but for present purposes it is enough to say that the traditional function of the ancient models was to guard and preside over the entrances to sacred precincts. Here we may surmise that it guards the river entrance to a grand house beyond.

The other significant new introduction is the foreground figure. The matching red cap and waistcoat, dark breeches and white stockings suggest a footman, or perhaps a boatman. As with the figure in the previous plate (14: Braiseworth, south portal) no work is being done. Other interpretations might occur to readers, but here it seems to me that he enjoys some truancy, rest and reflection in a sheltered sun trap by the water. I raised the theme of work avoidance in the Braiseworth plate, and here once again, is someone taking time out to let their mind drift elsewhere. Out of sight of the house, perhaps, but not of passing traffic on the river, and he lifts his gaze towards us, as if to make sure that he hasn’t been caught out.

John Sell Cotman
Garden House on the Yare, c.1809-10
Pencil and watercolour, 11 5/8 x 8 7/8 ins, 299 x 225 mm
Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford.
Image courtesy of the Higgins, Bedford

The second drawing in this group is at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford.  This is a strong pencil drawing, to which has been added a wash of blue for the background and the water. It is almost exactly the same size as the Christie’s watercolour, and has almost exactly the same detail. It is currently described by the Higgins as ‘by a pupil of John Sell Cotman in the early 1800s’, following Evelyn Joll’s 2002 catalogue of ‘Watercolours Drawings at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford’ where listed on p.75.

Sydney Kitson, Typescript list of his complete collection of works by Cotman
Leeds Art Gallery
Photograph Professor David Hill

My interest in this drawing began when working on ‘Cotmania’, the online catalogue of the Leeds collection of Cotman drawings and its accompanying archive. Most of the drawings on which I worked were collected by the Leeds architect Sydney Kitson, and had been left to Leeds together with all his notes, notebooks, lists and other archival material. Amongst this material is a typescript list of the 845 works that Kitson had accumulated before his death. The present drawing is no.9 in the list and Kitson’s notes record that it was the first that he acquired. He bought it from the Norwich art dealer Boswell’s in November 1924. As part of the settlement of his will, however, his daughters were invited to retain a selection of works. The Garden House was one of them, and they ultimately donated it to the Cecil Higgins.

Joll cites a letter in the Higgins’s archive dated 8 August 1992 from one of the sisters, Barbara Kitson. In that she says, ‘years later.. he came to believe it to be a copy’.  That may be so, but there is no obvious evidence of that amongst his papers at Leeds. One might expect that the typescript list used by his executors would have received some annotation. Quite the reverse in fact. Kitson went to the trouble in it to record the very high opinion expressed by S Kaines Smith, then director of the Leeds Art Gallery, in his book on John Sell Cotman published in 1926: ‘the effect of the whole is singularly satisfying and conveys by those very simple means, all the impression of pattern possible even to a much more elaborate rendering’.

I have to say that any qualitative case for rejecting an attribution to John Sell Cotman is not obvious. There are some comparative weaknesses. The lion is carefully transcribed, but nonetheless loses character. That in the Christie’s watercolour is much better, and indeed so it is in every other expression. The watercolour has an intelligent observation of the way in which the shadow cast by the central part of the cornice is interrupted by light passing through the broken stone above. This is present in the Higgins drawing but not so well expressed. On the other hand the slender tree to the right of the pavilion is more elegant in the pencil, as is the form of the boat.

The figure varies a little; that in the pencil is slightly stockier and more classically proportioned. There is also one other telling detail: In the pencil the figure is bare-headed and his cap lies on the shore immediately in front. Incidental perhaps, but carried through into the etching, and making its first appearance here.

John Sell Cotman [sometime attributed to James Stark)
Garden House on the Yare, c.1810-11
[Called ‘Carrow on the River Yare’]
Pencil and watercolour, 11 5/8 x 8 7/8 ins, 299 x 227 mm
Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1951.235.621.B21
Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums online

The Bedford drawing is not the only work that deserves fresh review and discussion. The Castle Museum at Norwich has a somewhat overlooked version of the composition in watercolour. The current entry in the online catalogue is undecided about the attribution, following an inscription on the backing paper reading ‘’490/Carrow on the River Yare James Stark’ and further annotated ‘after J S Cotman’. There seems no stylistic reason to link this with Stark, nor to assume that it must be a copy. Furthermore, the identification of the subject is plainly in error. The former village of Carrow, and the site of the former Carrow Abbey lies on the River Wensum, a little way south of Norwich city centre, close to the site of the present football stadium.

Click on any image to open as a gallery, and scroll between images

The detail of the Norwich watercolour situates it directly between the Bedford drawing and the etching. The most obvious diagnostic details are the slender tree, whose branches differentiate it from the Christie’s and Bedford drawings, but associate it with the etching. Systematic comparison of detail will find numerous exact correspondences with the Christie’s and Bedford drawings, but also numerous innovations, which are echoed by the etching. A few further points that might be pointed out for now are the two branches of foliage to the right of the large mooring post at the left, retained here but abandoned in the etching; the foliage on the bank to the right of the figure, cleared here and followed in the etching; the tree behind the lion, introduced here and followed in the etching, and the foreground waterline, levelled here, and followed in the etching.

The figure is perhaps the most important innovation, and all the more significant for being depicted in colour. Cotman builds on the composition devised in the Bedford drawing, but develops it much further. The key detail is that he is now clearly putting on (or perhaps removing) his left stocking. Other items of clothing are now elaborated by his side. It seems evident that he is dressing after swimming. His distinctly hunched posture suggests that he feels a little chilled. Either way, the figure is a distinct advance on any of the configurations that precede it. Here it takes on more individuality, more empathy, and more humanity. All of which qualities reach their peak in the etching.

The etching exceeds all the other versions in both quality of detail and aesthetic refinement. Everywhere the detail is more thoughtful, and even the slightest element has been given the artist’s utmost attention and consideration. The crumbling wattle and daub wall is typical, but the two tiny straps dangling from the platform timbers, even the depiction of nail heads and wooden pegs, exemplify the extent of his care. The quality of detail in the etching in some parts illuminates weakness in the drawings. The masonry between the pavilion and lion, is particularly uncertain in the Norwich watercolour.  Everywhere the detail in the etching is expressed with even greater subtlety. The way in which the platform timbers express the tiredness of their age: The shadows resolve the interplay of direct shadow and reflected received light: The care taken right around the roofline, and the complete absorption in every lath and tile of the entertainingly sagging roof.

In truth the etching is so strong it makes each of the three preceding drawings seem slightly insubstantial. It is perhaps understandable that at least two have been questioned. Nonetheless it does appear that there is a very strong sequence of development running through the series. It would fascinating to see them side by side, and see how they might speak to one another face to face. In any case it seems most evident that the etching represents the culmination of the development of the composition. It is also the work in this group in which Cotman attains particular aesthetic merit in his handling of the medium. For those that might be tempted to dismiss his etchings as of lesser artistic interest than his work in other media, this seems proof, if modern eyes are prepared to consider it at all, that Cotman’s etchings represent an artistic achievement of the very first rank.

[An appendix of cognate works follows below the summary of states]

Summary of known states:

First published state

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 15.

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image with key line. 288 x 219 mm on plate 302 x 2229 mm on sheet 474 x 340 mm.

On plate bottom left of subject in cursive script on a scroll, ‘A Garden House on the banks/ of the river Yare. Sketched in 1800./ Norwich, Etched & Published April 5th 1811 by J.S.Cotman, St Andrews St’.

Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.17

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 5, title page.  Image unchanged from 1811 edition except for reduction at right by approx. I  cm [with a corresponding trimming of the plate] in order to make the pavilion more central, and the burnishing and re-engraving of the scroll below left with new lettering, ‘’LIBER STUDIORUM. / Sketches and Studies by J.S. Cotman / London Pub.d by Henry G. Bohn 4 York Street Covent Garden’.

Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.17


Popham, 1922, no.17.

Additional works and afterthoughts

For the sake of completeness, there follows a list of cognate drawing and references. This list may well require amendment as other works come to light. If any reader can add to this list, please feel welcome to contribute via the comments box at the bottom of the page.

The original drawing of 1800

This is mentioned by Sydney Kitson in his Life of John Sell Cotman, 1937, p.22. Kitson seems to imply that he had seen it, for he says that it is one of three all signed ‘Cotman’. There is, however, no record of it in his notebooks, but the reference might stand further investigation in the Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery.

A lost 1802 watercolour?

In his discussion of the Bedford drawing cited in the main text, Soloman Kaines-Smith (John Sell Cotman, 1926, p.111) compares it to ‘a drawing in full colours of the same subject, signed and dated, 1802’, at that time in the collection of the late Mr. M. H. Horsley. Kaines Smith describes it as ‘rich and dark in tone, almost to heaviness’. This might be identified with the Bonhams drawing except for the fact that Kaines Smith implies that the two drawings were of similar design: ‘it is easy to translate the colour-spaces [of the watercolour] back into the pencil medium [of the Bedford drawing] in which they were originally rendered.’  M.H.Horsley (1867-1925) was a wealthy timber merchant of Hartlepool. He is now best-remembered for his interest in stamp collecting. On the whole I am inclined to think that Kaines Smith was speaking of the Bonhams watercolour, but there remains enough room to raise the possibility of a lost subject.

1811 exhibit

In 1811 Cotman served as president of the Norwich Society of Artists. He contributed thirty-four items to the exhibition that year under the explanation ‘The Drawings and etchings are chiefly intended for his Miscellaneous Etchings and his Illustrations of Blomefield’s Norfolk’. None of the etchings are identified as such, but twenty–two of the twenty-four subjects were included (only pl.1 Beeston Priory, and pl.4 South Burlingham were excluded) together with the Frontispiece and the Dedication. We might suspect that these were all etchings. ‘A Garden House on the River Yare’ was no.62.

1820 drawing?

A pencil and wash version of the subject dated 1820 is mentioned in the sale catalogue entry for the watercolour sold at Christie’s 16 November 2006, under no.61. The catalogue gives no source for its information, but this might have been a photograph in the Witt Library. Unfortunately this have been inaccessible since 2016, when the British collection was sent for digitisation. This was supposed to be completed within a year, but there is still no sign of it and there is some doubt as to whether the original photos will ever reappear. We hope to live long enough..

John Sell Cotman [or studio]
Old House on the Yare, Norwich, c.1835?
Pencil on paper, 239 x 185 mm
Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1951.235.553
Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums online

There is a strong pencil version of the composition at the Castle Museum. Norwich. This dispenses with the seated figure and the tethered rowboat and somewhat repairs both the bank and the pavilion. This is a substantial and well-drawn study, but lacks the bravura of Cotman’s own work, and is probably by Miles Edmund or John Joseph and made to augment the portfolios of study drawing that Cotman put before his pupils at King’s College School when he was master there from 1834. Its source, however, must predate the etching, for the tree is the same way round as in the Christie’s and Bedford drawings. The trees in the background are freely reworked, and the lion sadly mangled into almost comic parody.

John Sell Cotman
Tower and Pond, c.1809?
Pencil and watercolour, 244 x 193 mm
Leeds Art Gallery, presented by Robert Hawthorn Kitson, 1945. LEEAG.1945.0018.0008
Photograph by Professor Emeritus David Hill, courtesy of Leeds Art Gallery

Leeds Art Gallery has an independent variation on the theme in a watercolour called ‘Tower and Pond’ . This is a monochrome studio watercolour in a rather naif style, showing similar general elements but given a completely independent treatment. The drawing is inscribed lower left in graphite by Cotman; ‘1353 Cotman -‘, indicating its place in the portfolios of drawings that Cotman made available for his pupils to study and copy.


As it transpired the idea of life by the side of the Yare took on additional significance for Cotman in later years when his father retired to Thorpe. Since I have referred to this in the main article, it would be good to give this at least a little more consideration. I am trying to work out how many years it is since I had lunch at the Town House pub and restaurant and took some photographs in the garden. It might be twenty or even thirty. Either way they must be on slide film. There will have to be some rummaging..

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