This is the nineteenth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings published in 1811. Here in plate 16 Cotman returns to his first sketching tour to Wales, but of all the grand subjects that he laid in stores, he chose to give us a dilapidated cottage.
This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of a somewhat dilapidated late medieval jettied building. On the first floor are two angled oriel windows over ribbed semi-circular fan corbels. Several small diaper panes are missing. On the ground floor is a bay oriel, with its glass lost, and the lower panels roughly patched with wood. Outside the building a young woman with two children is chatting to an older woman. Beyond is a single-storey pub with the sign of a groom and horse, and beyond that a blockish, evidently flat-roofed, building. The subject is identified by the inscription ‘THE OLD COLLEGE HOUSE CONWAY’.
The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 30th 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 16 in the complete edition as published in 1811. With Kirkstall (Plate 17), it was the last to be etched. The plate is crisply and cleanly bitten, and Cotman has had the confidence to include a fully-developed sky.
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The subject is the Old College House at no.20 Castle Street, Conwy. The building survives but with its street frontage completely rebuilt.
Its history is exceedingly uncertain. It is not even clear when, or if, it ever served as a college. Its chief feature, at least in the condition that Cotman saw it, was its twin oriel windows on the first floor. The tiny diamond-shaped leaded panes are typical of the windows of important domestic buildings dating back to the fifteenth century, and the ribbed supports would not look out of place in a grand thirteenth century church. According to the listing note the corbels survive on the first floor together with a decorative shield also visible in Cotman’s etching.
No on-the-spot sketches by Cotman of the building survive, but Coflein, the Welsh Heritage website reproduces a near-contemporary sketch from the Thomas Lloyd collection, which suggests that Cotman took great care in his own rendition. Cotman made two tours to Wales in the years 1800 and 1802 when he was eighteen and twenty years of age. These were his first extended tours, and provided him with an extensive resource in terms of future subjects. There remains the need for a full scale study of his itineraries to amplify the framework account established by Sydney Kitson in his 1937 Life of Cotman. The subject has been extensively researched by scholar and artist Jeremy Yates but his trove of new material is still searching for a publisher.
Leeds Art Gallery has a number of sketches from Cotman’s Welsh tours. Jeremy Yates generously allowed me to see drafts of his work when I was cataloguing the Leeds drawings, and to incorporate many of his observations into the commentaries. It seems possible that Cotman visited Conway on each of his tours to Wales, and it is perhaps not altogether certain to which year some of the drawings should be assigned. Sketches at Leeds of a cognate subject at Conway – two small oriel widows in the nearby building of Plas Mawr – are quite firmly drawn, which might suggest the later visit.
The first studio product of Cotman’s studies in Conwy is a small but dramatic watercolour at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, signed and dated 1802. As with many of his watercolours of this time, it has lost much of its original green and blue. The latter would have been particularly strong. Over the years the colour has blackened to brooding, but the effect was always meant to be somewhat Gothic. We saw a near-contemporary example in the previous instalment of A Garden House on the Yare.
The etching took shape through a very careful pencil drawing that was last on the market with Sotheby’s in 2001. One obvious development is the addition of a chimney – Cotman seems to have initially thought of adding just a peek of one over the roofline, but then decided to make it more prominent.
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The figures are, as always in Cotman, interesting. Scores of lively figure studies survive in, for example, the British Museum, V&A, Norwich Castle Museum and Leeds Art Gallery collections. Throughout his career, it would appear, he recorded candid studies of people going about their daily lives. Leeds has dozens, but amongst them is a particularly thought-provoking pair.
The first is a study of a young woman, bare-headed and dressed in a simple, loose-fitting pinafore dress, with ‘blue stripes’ and a short-sleeved blouse in ‘wht’, carrying a jug in her right arm, and supporting a baby’s head in front with her left. It seems evident from her figure that the child must be a very recent arrival, and that the mother must be of a quite tender age.
Her bobbed, tousled hair is quite distinctive, and a similar figure appears in a second drawing at Leeds. In that drawing she carries a child a few months old, and it is tempting to wonder if this might not be the same mother and child. If so, we might wonder whether there was some connection with the Cotman family. The drawings are undated, but Cotman’s first child, Miles Edmund, was born in 1810. It is perhaps too much to think that this might be him, but we might expect Cotman to have drawn his first child fondly. In any case Cotman did draw children regularly, of all ages, and with a strong sense of human sympathy and affection. Either way this young woman and child forced their way into his thoughts sufficiently for him to have given them [in reverse} a prominent place in this etching.
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The young woman was joined in the group by figures from as-yet-unidentified sources. Most prominent in the group is the sturdily-posed woman to the right. She is even more robust in the Sotheby’s drawing and gives the impression that she must be older. Some familial relationship seems implied by the way that the child reaches out. A jug dangles from her arm. It seems that the idea of that might have been suggested by the pose of the girl in the first Leeds drawing. Quite what it was intended for is unclear. Perhaps to take water from a pump, but there is none in evidence. Perhaps then, rather, ale from the inn, to make the most direct inference.
Accompanying the younger woman is a boy. He is perhaps ten years old or so and seems well-dressed with a broad-brimmed hat, knee-length coat and long trousers. From his positioning, he might equally be the brother of the young woman, or of the infant. He might also be of an age to be enrolled in a school. Not here, however, for it is clear that the Old College was long past its days as an educational institution.
‘The History of Education in Conwy Town’, researched and written by Ray Castle, Gill. Jones and Ann Morgan with advice from Robert Barnsdale, 2014 is online. But straight away, the authors say of the Old College building that ‘The only known connection with education appears to be its name’. Cotman’s etching, however, offers proof that it must certainly have served as a school. It has not been previously noted that Cotman shows a sign board above the ground floor oriel that reads: ‘AP GRIFFITHS JONES/ SCHOOL MASTER’.
The 2014 article says ‘In 1731 another member of the S.P.C.K., Griffith Jones, a minister of the Church of England who was born in Carmarthenshire, instigated a system of teaching people to read in Welsh known as ‘circulating schools’. The schools were held in one location for about three months before moving on to another place. Pupils were taught to read in Welsh. The curriculum consisted only in the study of the Bible and the Catechism of the Church of England. As a result, many people became literate and in addition gained a deep knowledge of the Christian scriptures. By 1761 there were about 85 circulating schools in North Wales but no evidence has been found of any such schools in Conwy town.’ Although the etching supplies some evidence, it also proves that the school failed, at least on this site. The place was all but derelict when Cotman drew it.
Nothing appears to be prospering in Cotman’s Conwy. Even the inn, the sign more clearly given as a horse and groom, is a lowly single-storey building, its shutters dangling off their hinges, and trade appears to be a very long way from booming.
Cotman also developed the composition in watercolour. It is perhaps an open question as to whether the watercolour or the etching came first. The etching has by far the best developed fine detail, as one might expect of an artist exploiting the inherent capabilities of that medium, but the watercolour seems to add new ideas. We get a better impression, for example, of the older woman’s gown which is printed or embroidered with blue motifs, probably flowers or bows.
With her matching silk-trimmed bonnet she seems now quite prosperous, and some social relations start to be implied. The younger woman is probably a servant, dressed in a blue apron – she is probably the household nurse. The treatment of the college building is also developed. Its brick plinth is defined more elaborately, and the oriel windows are a tour-de force of study in watercolour handling and bravura colour highlight. Everywhere the watercolour is used to add substantive texture and materiality to the decay. “Rotting planks, slimy posts and brick walls, these scenes made me a painter”, Constable famously confessed, but here, a full ten years earlier, Cotman hoisted his own frayed colours to the mast.
It seems plain that Cotman’s subject selection at Conwy was invested with didactic social purpose. The choice of an ‘Old College House’, seemingly uncared-for, reflects a certain philistinism upon its times. The early nineteenth century was a period of dynamic change, when some accumulated great wealth. The extent to which general society was improved, or the stock of humanity increased is much more debatable. Cotman is here quietly probing the extent of opportunity for the cottager, or even the cot-man. The key detail of all, perhaps, is the recurrent motif in Cotman of propped timbers. Here, it might almost seem, if they were removed, the whole building would collapse.
Summary of known states:
First published state
As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 16.
Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 294 x 208 mm on plate 305 x 217 mm on [original sheet as published] approx.. 474 x 340 mm.
On plate bottom centre of subject in hand-engraved open caps ‘THE OLD COLLEGE HOUSE CONWAY/ Etched & Published May 30th 1811 by J. S. Cotman, Norwich’ and (barely legibly) on plaque above ground floor window: ‘AP GRIFFITHS JONES/ SCHOOL MASTER’.May 5th 1811 by J S Cotman, Norwich’.
Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.18
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, xiii. Plate unchanged from 1811 edition except for addition of numeral inscribed ‘XIII’ top centre of plate margin.
Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.18
Popham, 1922, no.18.