This is the twenty-first article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings published in 1811. Here in plate 18 Cotman continues with his Yorkshire material, and selects a second subject at Kirkham Priory, and finds himself confronting some demons.
This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright architectural subject featuring an oblique view from the right of a Romanesque portal, surmounted by three grotesque heads. A male figure lies on the ground at the entrance, evidently sketching.
The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 30 April 1811 for his first series of ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’. This was issued to subscribers in parts, and the present subject was published as plate 18 in the complete edition of 1811. Fountain’s Abbey (plate 19) was published on the same day, and together they are the nineteenth and twentieth of the twenty-four subjects published in date order. The plate is perfectly bitten, the lines crisp and deft, the plate fully worked, and the print clean and delicate. There is a simplicity and directness to the conception that suggests an entirely clear sense of both purpose and means.
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Kirkham Priory is one of the lesser-known of Yorkshire’s abbeys, tucked away in in a fold of the river Derwent, not far south of the main York to Malton road, and within ready walking distance of Castle Howard. It was founded for a community of Augustinian canons in the early twelfth century. At its height it boasted a large church and extensive outbuildings, but all that remains now of the church is one solitary arch, and of the remainder, parts of the cloister and refectory, including the present portal, together with its most substantial survival – a richly ornamented entrance gateway.
Cotman first visited Kirkham in the company of fellow-artist Paul Sandby Munn, during a tour of Yorkshire in 1803. On 7 July they arrived at Brandsby Hall, the home of the Cholmeley family about ten miles north of York. They stayed for a week and made good use of their time borrowing Mrs Cholmeley’s chaise and making several excursions in the neighbourhood. Their first excursion was on the 8th to Castle Howard, the home of the Earl of Carlisle, and on the same day they visited nearby Kirkham. Mrs Cholmeley recorded that they were delighted with Kirkham and made some exquisite drawings.
The subject of the etching is the refectory doorway as seen from inside the refectory. Cotman had already etched the same portal in plate 9 but as seen from the opposite side.
In thinking about the earlier plate we had occasion to muse upon the strength of Cotman’s poetic response to portals. Given that by the time of the etching Cotman had a very wide range of examples on which to reflect, it would appear that the portal at Kirkham struck an even deeper chord than was usual.
The first thing that will strike the modern visitor to the site is that Cotman’s portal is at first floor level.
The original building on this side has almost entirely disappeared. Formerly of two stories, the monks’ refectory occupied the upper floor, whilst the ground floor provided a vaulted undercroft. By the time Cotman saw it, the roof, walls, floor and vaults had collapsed and filled the undercroft. Today this has all been excavated and cleared, but in Cotman’s day was almost level with the portal.
The etching is based on, or very closely related to, a pencil drawing that appeared on the market in 2011 with its subject unidentified. At the sale it was described only as ‘An archway’. Its style dates to c.1803-4, but comparison with the portal as it survives suggests that it must be a studio elaboration of a lost on-the-spot sketch. There are several vagaries with regard to the profiles and intervals of the mouldings, together with the depth of the portal, that seem to suggest that Cotman has misinterpreted or misunderstood his original notes.
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Strict architectural detail was not Cotman’s priority here. Rather, it was the strange poetry of the grotesque heads above the door. They have long disappeared. The custodian at the site told me that the site has been repeatedly ransacked, and features carried off as ornaments for gardens local and further afield. These particular sculptures, however, do not seem to have attracted much noticed, and the reconstruction drawing on the information panel on site (see above) omits them altogether. The pencil drawing, however, does suggest that they were actually present in 1803. Perhaps someone will recognise them as a result of this!
Such sculptures are relatively common on the market:
They are sometimes said to have served as charms against evil. Some are merely comic, but many seem meant to disturb. These are writhingly malign, snarling and hostile; intent, if they can, on breaking their confines and ravening upon any victim passing beneath. They invite more than just pause for thought and issue a note of incipient threat, even in a place of supposed sanctuary.
Cotman’s artist seems dwarfed by portal that he faces, and the passage through it beset by trepidation. Cotman’s whole career was beset by demons; a roller-coaster of optimism and disappointment, enthusiasm and depression, eager application and despondency. Here, contemplating the crossing of this threshold, the artist is beset by fears, anxieties and threats, and seems to muse upon what might be required in terms of performance, strength and resolve.
Summary of known states:
First published state
As editioned by Cotman for ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’, 1811, where plate 18.
Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 295 x 216 mm on plate 302 x 228 mm on sheet 474 x 340 mm.
Inscribed on plate lower centre in open caps ‘KIRKHAM PRIORY YORKs’ and below in cursive script ‘Etched & Published April 30th 1811 by J. S. Cotman Norwich’
Collection: Examples in various collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1956.254.20
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, iii. Plate as 1811 edition except for the addition of inscribed numeral ‘III’ top centre.
Examples in numerous collections, e.g. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1923.86.20
Popham, 1922, no.20.