Plate 17: Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire

This is the twentieth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings published in 1811. Here in plate 17 Cotman returns to his Yorkshire material, and selects a grand subject of Kirkstall Abbey, albeit almost completely smothered in ivy.

John Sell Cotman
Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire, 1811
Private Collection
Photograph by Professor David Hill

This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of the entrance frontage of a grand Romanesque Abbey. On the ground floor is a highly-ornamented round-arched portal, blocked by a rude timber gate. Above are twin ornamented round-headed lancets, and above, the crumbled remains of a gable pierced by a small round-headed window, and crowned by a slender finial. The front is flanked by plain masonry buttresses capped with strong square finials. Most of the left side of the front, and of the adjacent walls is covered in a luxuriant growth of ivy. In the foreground, three cows stand in a pool of water and an artist sits on the grass to the right, sketching. The subject is identified by the inscription ‘KIRKSTALL ABBEY, YORKs’, the lettering being reflected in the water.

The plate was etched by John Sell 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 17 of the complete edition as published in 1811. With Conway (plate 16), it was the last to be etched. The plate is crisply and cleanly etched, and Cotman has also included a fully-developed sky. With Conway, it demonstrates Cotman attaining a confident command of the medium.

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The subject is the west front of Kirkstall Abbey, about three miles north-west of the city centre of Leeds. Kirkstall Abbey was founded for a Cistercian community in the mid-twelfth century and its buildings span the transition from Romanesque to Gothic. The west front is wholly Romanesque, but the nave arches are pointed, and the aisles rib-vaulted. Cotman’s viewpoint is from the north-west, and the west frontage survives much as Cotman drew it, albeit now completely cleared of its vegetation.

Cotman’s exact viewpoint is not the best view on site. Today it must be viewed through a screen of branches and on my last visit on 16 April 2022, was rapidly being concealed by the spring budburst. Nor is it the most commodious. Cotman could have enjoyed a more comfortable perch and a wider angle of view from the small stack of masonry a little further right.

Cotman visited Kirkstall twice during his first visit to Yorkshire in 1803, although no sketch of this view survives. A sketch of ‘Weeds at Kirkstall’ in the Leeds collection (LEEAG.1949.0009.0573) is dated 28 July and 21 September 1803. 

John Sell Cotman
Weeds at Kirkstall, 1803
Graphite on off-white, wove paper, 6 7/8 x 6 ins, 175 x 152 mm
Leeds City Art Gallery  1949.573
Image courtesy of Leeds Art Gallery

Cotman also made a watercolour sketch of the interior of the chapter house, also in the Leeds collection (1995.029). He must also have made careful studies of the principal aspects, but none of those survive, nor does any finished drawing or watercolour that might have served as the basis of the etching.

John Sell Cotman
Kirkstall Abbey: Interior of the Chapter House, 1803
Graphite and sepia watercolour on white wove paper, 255 x 315 mm, 10 x 12 1/2 ins
Leeds Art Gallery (1995.029)
Image scanned from Sotheby’s catalogue 19 November 1981, lot 41

On the first visit of 28 July 1803 Cotman was travelling in the company of fellow-artist Paul Sandby Munn. The latter must have sketched alongside Cotman for a monochrome watercolour dated 1804 was sold by Sotheby’s Olympia on 21 January 2004 (lot119) and records exactly the same aspect as Cotman’s etching.

Paul Sandby Munn
West Front of Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire, 1804
Monochrome wash, 250 x 220 mm
Sotheby’s, Olympia, 21 January 2004, lot 119
Image courtesy of Sotheby’s

Another watercolour version of the same view was with Sotheby’s in June 2000, tentatively attributed to Cotman. My only record of this is a poor photocopy from the files at Norwich Castle Museum. The Cotman scholar Norma Watt annotated the photograph “?P S Munn’, and there is a close correspondence with the Sotheby’s Olympia watercolour.

Paul Sandby Munn
West Front of Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire, 1803
Watercolour, size unknown
With Sotheby’s, London, June 2000
Scanned by Professor David Hill from photocopy of phot on Norwich Castle Museum files.

It seems obvious that Munn and Cotman stored up a joint stock of reference material. At this time Cotman was recorded living in London at Mr Munn’s, and it seems the two artists were close. It may well be that the artist sketching in the background of the Chapter House watercolour is Munn, and likewise the artist depicted to the right in the etching.

Kirkstall was one of the most visited artistic sites in the whole North of England. One of the earliest depictions is by William Lodge from 1715, and there was a steady stream by mid –century. There are numerous comparative treatments of the same view as Cotman, and it may be wondered that Cotman was at all interested in it as a subject, given that he so much preferred to go against the popular grain. Turner and Girtin both made masterpieces from it, albeit of different views

Thomas Girtin, 1775–1802, British, after Edward Dayes, 1763–1804, British,
Kirkstall Abbey from the N.W., ca. 1792,
Watercolour, pen and black ink, pen and brown ink and graphite on medium, slightly textured, beige wove paper, mounted on moderately thick, slightly textured, beige wove paper,
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.3.1141

In this case Cotman decided to construct position in direct opposition to the established views. We may begin to illuminate this by looking at an earlier watercolour by Thomas Girtin made when the artist was only seventeen and apprenticed to Edward Dayes. The senior artist presumably provided the sketch, and instructed Girtin to work it up into a finished composition for sale. Presumably the same drawing, or perhaps even GIrtin’s watercolour, provided the basis of an engraving of the subject published under Dayes’s name the following year.

Jabez Goldar, after Edward Dayes
Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire, 1793
Etching and engraving, printed on paper, sheet size 150 x 196 mm
British Museum, London, 1873,0712.480
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Ivy mantled ruins were something of a cliché in eighteenth century poetics, and this finely festooned corner of Kirkstall proved popular with artists. A succession of images seems almost to offer the possibility of charting the annual growth. 

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At the very least we might conclude that Cotman did not need to exaggerate the growth on the west front; in fact he appears to have transcribed it assiduously into the etching.

Rather, he chose an upright format. All the other artists give a wide enough field of view to suggest something of the extent of the ruins. Cotman confines attention to a perfectly even balance between greenery and architecture. Never can architectural artist have given such attention to vegetal proliferation. It almost as if the ivy has caught fire. The foreground cow looks back in some wonder at the conflagration.

He must surely have intended his viewers to wonder at his priorities. How strange to offer a subject of architectural importance, and then choose a viewpoint from which most of it was hidden. If anyone in Cotman’s audience gave this any thought, they might have realised that they were being provoked.

The question is to what purpose? We should probably start with the sense of provocation.There is, as is common with Cotman, a sense of refusal. Cotman plainly denies the usual sentimental satisfactions of ruin subjects. His makes the other treatments seem conventional and compliant; eager to please; even ingratiating. Cotman’s refusal implies a critical departure from the norm.

Ruins were a comfort in the industrial age; a retreat to calmer corners, havens from the bustle, traffic, smoke, noise and relentless business of the modern economy. They were also celebrated as aesthetic achievements, the produce of an age in which such achievements were a principal societal good, It is their neglect to which Cotman points here, and the philistinism of times in which great fortunes were amassed in new piles whilst national stores of aesthetic wealth were allowed to decay. The economy was roaring, but with a brutish voice. Here, it is only those outside that economy – the Cot-men – with their simpler tools, craft and rude materials, who can see the need to shore up against the times.

Summary of known states:

First published state

As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 17.

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 299 x 208 mm on plate 305 x 217 mm on [original sheet as published]  approx.. 474 x 340 mm.

On plate bottom left of subject in hand-engraved open caps ‘KIRKSTALL ABBEY YORKS’ and lower right in cursive script, ’Etched & Published May 30th 1811 by J. S. Cotman, Norwich’.

Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.19

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, ii.  Plate unchanged from  1811 edition except for the addition of numeral inscribed ‘II’ top centre of plate margin.

Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.19


Popham, 1922, no.19.

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