A Twopeny Portfolio: #14 Tolethorpe Mill, near Little Casterton, 1828

This article considers the fourteenth work of twenty-five bought at Anderson & Garland Ltd, Newcastle upon Tyne, 21 March 2017, lot 46 as Various Artists (British 19th Century) Sundry drawings and watercolours, mainly topographical and floral studies, including a grisaille “South Gate Lynn, Norfolk”, bearing the signature J.S. Cotman, various sizes, all unframed in a folio.

Here we further extend the discussion (see parts #7-12) of a group of five  pencil drawings, all dated 1828, once mounted in an album, and some numbered in the original page order, with a third Little Casterton subject, also dated 1828, and evidently belonging to the same group. The present drawing is dated June 20 1828, and was almost certainly originally numbered on the reverse of the backing sheet, but that was lost when the album page was cut down to the present fragment.

Continue reading “A Twopeny Portfolio: #14 Tolethorpe Mill, near Little Casterton, 1828”

Cotman, Bloomfield and The Ploughed Field

This article proposes a source for John Sell Cotman’s famous watercolour of ‘The Ploughed Field’ at Leeds Art Gallery.

John Sell Cotman
The Ploughed Field, c.1805-6
Graphite and watercolour on off-white, wove paper with reticulated grain, 9 x 13 3/4 ins, 228 x 350 mm
Leeds Art Gallery, 1923.508
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Leeds Art Gallery
To see full catalogue details visit
then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.]

In the online catalogue of the Cotman collection at Leeds http://www.cotmania.org, I describe the watercolour as ‘the exemplar of his turn towards reticence and understatement… the supreme exercise in undemonstrative refinement and subtlety of its time’. It is one of the most travelled and exhibited of all British watercolours of its period and definitive of Cotman’s antithetical position in relation to Turner.

The originality of the subject has struck most commentators, but is best expressed by Corinne Miller in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Cotmania and Mr Kitson’ held at Leeds Art Gallery in 1992: ‘In terms of subject matter and composition it is both revolutionary and in advance of its time. While the juxtaposition of the cultivated and the natural landscape was familiar to an audience whose countryside had been carved up and tamed by agrarian enclosures, the devotion of one third of the composition to the steeply receding furrows of the plough are without precedent and firmly establish this watercolour as one of the earliest examples of a romantic naturalism which was to take over from a ‘picturesque’ sentiment where there was no place for ‘worked’ land’.

No-one, however, seems ever to have commented on the detail at the very front of the composition, of a dead crow tied to a stick. There are several more receding into the distance. The implication is that the farmer has just set them out in the field. This is a long-used and quite widespread crop protection measure. Not long again I almost became one of the deterrents. Blundering across a newly seeded field near Jervaulx Abbey, I began to wonder about the dead crows scattered about the field. It was only when an aggrieved shout came from a nearby hedge that I understood I was wondering across the field of fire of a hidden rifleman. The signpost missed at the entrance to the field pointed away from it, not across.

No-one but Cotman seems to have led the polite viewer onto such cloying ground. Equally no Romantic painter can have confronted their audience with such a macabre detail as a crow tied to a stick. It is clear enough that Cotman was proposing a somewhat alternative aesthetic, but the Cotman literature has never managed to develop an aesthetic context in which this might be situated. My thinking about Constable’s mezzotint of ‘A Summerland’ for Sublimesites.co, however, led me to the poem ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ by Robert Bloomfield, first published in 1800 and the realisation that Bloomfield exactly mirrors the two key elements of furrow plodding and dead crows. Cotman must surely have had the poem in mind when composing ‘The Ploughed Field’.

Robert Bloomfield (1766 – 1823) was an impecunious London shoemaker when his poem was published in 1800. It became the publishing sensation of the first decade of the nineteenth century, and sold tens of thousands of copies. Given the popularity of the poem – it was already in its ninth edition by the time that Cotman painted this – it seems certain that Cotman would have read it.

It tells the life of a simple farm boy, Giles, through the four seasons. The first part, Spring, describes the ploughing, harrowing and sowing of the fields. We can highlight the lines that most obviously relate to Cotman’s ‘The Ploughed Field’:

With smiling brow the ploughman cleaves his way, Draws his fresh parallels, and wid’ning still,
Treads slow the heavy dale, or climbs the hill…
Till all is chang’d, and hill and level down
Assume a livery of sober brown:
Again disturb’d, when Giles with wearying strides
From ridge to ridge the ponderous harrow guides;

His heels deep sinking every step he goes,
Till dirt usurp the empire of his shoes.’

This seems exactly to suggest the ground and the situation depicted by Cotman.

Following that comes Giles’s efforts to keeps the birds off:

‘…the big swoln grain below,
A favourite morsel with the rook and crow;
From field to field the flock increasing goes;
To level crops most formidable foes:..
Yet oft the sculking gunner by surprise
Will scatter death amongst them as they rise.
These, hung in triumph round the spacious field,
At best will but a short-lived terror yield:..

Let then your birds lie prostrate on the earth,
In dying posture, and with wings stretch’d forth;
Shift them at eve or morn from place to place,
And death shall terrify the pilfering race;
In the mid air, while circling round and round,
They’ll call their lifeless comrades from the ground;
With quick’ning wing, and notes of loud alarm,
Warn the whole flock to shun the’ impending harm.’

The conjunction of such specific and unusual details in the poem and painting seems to link them incontrovertibly. I have not yet found any specific reference to Bloomfield in the Cotman literature, but it would certainly be worth looking out for some, and nor have I made any more general search for other potential connections, although if this instance is as clear as I believe it to be, then there might certainly be others.

Bloomfield’s poem certainly caught the public’s imagination. It was directly modelled on one of the most popular rural idylls of the eighteenth century, ‘The Seasons’ by James Thomson. In all of its earlier editions it was prefaced by a biography of the poet that made clear his humble origins. One of the principal attractions of Bloomfield’s poem was that it was the authentic voice of the simple working man.

On the other hand one of the enduring scholarly issues with the poem is that in its earlier editions it was hardy Bloomfield’s authentic expression at all. The editor had very carefully smoothed out all of his colloquialisms, and most instances of unsophisticated grammar, expression and vocabulary. It was only in later editions that Bloomfield began to restore some of his original burr, but not until modern times that an edition has appeared that scrupulously adheres to the original manuscripts. See for example Peter Cochrane’s essay and edition at::

Click to access robert-bloomfield-the-farmers-boy.pdf

From a 1778 edition of James Thomson’s ‘The Seasons’

Cotman presumably, rather hoped that he might plough the same aesthetic furrow as Bloomfield. As it turned out, however, Cotman misjudged the market. It appears that the literary rural and the pictorial rural were received rather differently. If truth be told, the contemporary public simply saw Bloomfield’s poem as a new Thomson’s Seasons. Modern Bloomfield scholarship has sought to try and demonstrate more radical tendencies in ‘The Farmer’s Boy’, elements that disrupt the genteel Tory sentiment in which Thomson’s poem is steeped. See for example Ian Haywood’s article at:

No dead crows here!

Furthermore, the whole orthography and design of the book seems to have been intended to deceive the reader into thinking that ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ was the exact successor to Thomson’s Seasons. The woodcuts are twee to the point of being positively kitsch. They seem the calculated attempt to smuggle the idea of rural life out of the country and into the drawing room, and to neutralise any but the sweetest perfumes that might drift in from outside.

The trouble is that Cotman’s attempts in the same genre were all too visibly antithetical. Pictures were supposed to be big, rich, finely wrought, valuable and covetable objects. ‘The Ploughed Field’ fails on virtually every level. It is small, fragile, muted, artisanal in is handling, and depicts dirt and dead crows. Cotman made the notion of a simplified language and anti-heroic aesthetic far too concrete. He made something resembling arte povera about one hundred and fifty years too soon. One might say in fact, is that ‘The Ploughed Field’ is the kind of illustration that ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ properly deserved and certainly one might suspect that Cotman intended the association to be recognised, besides his realisation of the true nature of Bloomfield’s poem. As I observe in the commentary on the watercolour in http://www.cotmania.org: ‘It represents the complete antithesis to the strident, clamouring competition that for the most part was art in exhibition in the early nineteenth century: So antithetical, in fact as to exceed all context for its age, and it continues to challenge expectations in a visual environment that has taken a taste for the histrionic to hyperbolic levels.’

I was led to Bloomfield’s ‘Farmer’s Boy’ via my interest in Constable’s ‘A Summerland’. Constable quoted a couple of lines from the poem as an epigraph to the painting in the catalogue when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1814:
‘But, unassisted through each toilsome day,
With smiling brow the Plowman cleaves his way’
It is a remarkable coincidence that these lines stand at the beginning of the passage which appears to have caught Cotman’s eye – about half-way down page 7 of ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ reproduced above. Constable drew on Bloomfield on several occasions. I hope to give some thought to his relevance to ‘A Summerland’ in due course.

John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm, Part #6

This is the sixth and final instalment recording the recent exhibition of ‘John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm’, held at Leeds Art Gallery, 13 October 2017 to 21 January 2018. Here, we explore the framed works shown in the principal room under the theme of ‘Storm’. Under each caption is a link to a high resolution image of the work and an extended commentary on Cotmania.org, the online catalogue of the Cotman collection at Leeds.

Storm Gen

Cotman felt more acutely than most the excoriating effects of change. He was born into an age that clung onto an ideal of rural England and died in the triumph of the industrial revolution. His art cleaved to a simpler and purer aesthetic, but was too tender a plant for the tastes of his time. He struggled all his career against financial setback and he fell well short of achieving the kind of artistic life for which he yearned.

Blasted oak sketch

‘My views in life are so completely blasted that I sink under the repeated and constant exertion of body and mind. Every effort has been tried, even without the hope of success. Hence the loss of spirits amounting almost to despair.
My eldest son, who is following in the same miserable profession as myself, feels the same hopelessness with myself; and his powers, once so promising, are evidently paralysed and his health and spirits gone. My amiable and deserving wife bears her part with fortitude – but the worm is there. My children cannot help but feel the contagion.
As a husband and father, bound by every tie human and divine to cherish and protect them, I leave you to suppose how impossible it must be for me to feel one joy divided from them. I watch them closely – and they me, narrowly. I see enough to make me broken-hearted.’
John Sell Cotman, Letter to Rev William Gunn, 26 June 1829 (Edinburgh University Library)

Storm #1

A schooner in a fresh gale and choppy seas, 1801
Storm was a popular subject in the early nineteenth century. It supplied a sense of nature for an increasingly urbanised population, but also embodied anxieties about uncontrollable forces of change.
This watercolour must have seemed an impressive performance for a young man of nineteen years.

Head in the Clouds: A design for a frontispiece, 1801
After Kitson bought the watercolour of ‘A schooner in a fresh gale and choppy seas’, holding it to the light he could see indications of a signature beneath. When the British Museum removed the drawing from its backing the present drawing was discovered on the support.
The design appears to be a self-portrait with Cotman’s face swirling amongst the clouds above a stormy seascape. It may have been intended as an emblem of his destined career.

Storm #2

Coal Shaft on Lincoln Hill at Coalbrookdale, c.1806
One of the major forces of change in his lifetime was the industrial revolution. Coalbrookdale is popularly regarded as its birthplace, with its coal measures and iron smelting works. Cotman shows a hill-top mine, with a horse gin to power the winding gear, with the profile of The Wrekin in the background.
This watercolour was presented by Sir Michael Sadler to mark the completion of his term as Vice Chancellor at the University of Leeds.

The rivers Humber, Ouse and Trent, from Welton, near Hull, Yorkshire, 1804
Cotman visited Welton in September 1803 on a short tour of East Yorkshire. He finished at Wakefield and Cotman made this watercolour for John Smyth of nearby Heath Hall. It is not known if Smyth had any connection with Welton.
The windmill was demolished in 1843 but the view across the Humber remains as spectacular as ever. Windmills were an enduring motif for Cotman, symbols of a pre-combustion age technology and relationship with nature.

Storm #3

West Front of St Botolph’s Priory, Colchester, Essex
, (watercolour) 1804
West Front of St Botolph’s Priory, Colchester, Essex, (etching) 1811
This small watercolour is Cotman’s earliest treatment of this subject, which he visited in 1804. Ruins held a powerful place in the Romantic imagination, speaking wishfully of a simpler but less philistine age.
His treatment of the subject culminated in this fine etching published in a series of ‘Miscellaneous Etchings’ in 1811. These were Cotman’s first essays in etching, and this is one of the best of the plates.

Storm #4

Llyn Ogwen, North Wales, c.1823
Cotman visited Llyn Ogwen on his tours of Wales in 1800 and 1802. This watercolour records the view from the south shore to Elidir Fawr and Carnedd y Filiast.
After the Normandy project Cotman turned back to sketches from the beginning of his career. In the winter of 1823-4 he set up a new studio in Norwich with the avowed intention of re-establishing his reputation as a poet of nature as well as of architecture.

An Effect of Parhelion seen from Hunstanton Lighthouse on July 6 1816, 1818
This is a study of the spectacular phenomenon of Parhelion, more commonly called ‘sun dogs’.
Some version of the effect is frequently seen, but hardly ever such a complete library of the possible phenomena as here.
It may well have been the result of atmospheric disturbance caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815. That resulted in one of the most disturbed summers on meteorological record in 1816.

Blakeney Church and Wiveton Hall, North Norfolk, 1818
Cotman made this drawing to illustrate ‘Excursions through Norfolk’, published in 1819.
The viewpoint is close to the present George Hotel at Cley. Blakeney church housed a light to guide ships into the local harbours.
The series includes some of Cotman’s most beautifully sparing and austere work. Sadly the engravings fail to properly understand the originals. Worse, Cotman had to importune the publisher to pay him. It remains unclear whether he was ever successful.

Storm #5

Domfront, Normandy, c.1820
Cotman visited Domfront in southern Normandy in 1820 and the present subject shows the view from the still-surviving ‘Cent Etages’ that descend from the castle barbican. The outcrop opposite is the Tertre Grisiere, the hamlet that of Les Tanneries, and the footbridge survives to this day.
The convulsive geology is noteworthy. Geology more than anything created turmoil in established understandings of the creation and nature of the world.

A lugger attending a rowing boat, with a cutter beyond, in rough seas
, c.1823
In the 1820s Cotman revived his interest in the sea. He had a boat called ‘Jessie’ and sailed down the Suffolk and Essex coast to the Thames and Medway.
The main boat here may be a lifeboat. It would be useful to have short masts in the heavy seas.
The watercolour has been attributed to Miles Edmund, Cotman’s eldest son. The quality of the figures and colour are more associable with John Sell Cotman.

The Parish Chest in Blickling Church, Norfolk, 1841
In 1841 Cotman made an autumn visit to Norfolk. With a lifetime’s poetic store to draw upon, he selected quiet subjects resonant with associations.
The old parish chest survives almost unchanged in Blickling Church albeit piled high with hymn books and leaflets.
The present subject speaks of old treasures put away; the equivalent of his own life’s store. As it is, Cotman’s death came unexpectedly soon, only eight months later on 24 July 1842.

Storm #6

A Wooded Park, c.1835
In the 1830s Cotman produced a series of small, highly coloured watercolours of landscape subjects.
He drew on subjects from throughout his career, but pared them down to visionary essentials. They have been described as ‘Harbours for the Soul’.
The present subject has been called ‘At Whitlingham’, a small village a short way south-east of Norwich. Whether that can be sustained is doubtful, but the composition certain draws on the character of Norfolk heathland.

Road to the Hills, c.1838
Late in life Cotman produced a series of monochromes which includes some of the most powerful work of his career.
In 1838 Cotman exhibited a painting of ‘Scene of the Foot of the Hamilton Hills’. ‘Road to the Hills’ could easily be a recollection the Hambleton Hills of North Yorkshire when in 1803 he travelled in a gig with his Yorkshire patron Teresa Cholmeley to visit Whitestonecliff near Sutton Bank.

Mountain Landscape, possibly in Wales
, c.1835
This is another of Cotman’s ‘Harbours for the Soul’, drawing this time on memories of his visits to North Wales in 1800 and 1802.
Cotman achieved his brilliance of colour and handling through mixing pigment with a unique paste medium.
He seems to have shown these at private soirees of artists and patrons. Many of the leading watercolourists of the day were present at these, and cannot have failed to appreciate Cotman’s brilliance.


Storm #7

John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm, Part #5

This is the fifth instalment of the recent exhibition of ‘John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm’, held at Leeds Art Gallery, 13 October 2017 to 21 January 2018. Here, we explore some of the archival material displayed, and some of the responses made by the contemporary artist, Hondartza Fraga.

Hordartza Greta

The core of the Cotman archive at Leeds is the set of twelve research notebooks compiled by Sydney Kitson. He began the first in 1926 and left the last unfinished at his death in 1937. He titled them ‘Cotmania’ in a jocular reference to his immersion in study of the artist, and they were all bound a uniform blue, presumably with a view to their incorporation into his legacy. They served as the record and diary of his quest to see (and sometimes buy) every Cotman that he could, and as the basis of his definitive ‘Life of John Sell Cotman’ published by Faber and Faber just one month before his death. The final incomplete notebook is red, being left unincorporated into the main series.

Hondartza Cotmania #1

The contemporary artist Hondartza Fraga immersed herself in the archive and Cotman’s work at Leeds and produced a series of works in response. Among the key pieces was a series of watercolours made in response to the notebooks. Kitson and the other collectors of Cotman in the 1920s and 1930s often made reference to Cotman’s blue. Kitson bound his notebooks in this colour and his published book was issued in a blue binding. Hondartza made a series exploring the aesthetic properties of blue watercolour, and a specific group devoted to the ‘Cotmania’ notebooks. These were exhibited as an ensemble in the exhibition.

Hondartza Cotmania #2

In 2015, not long after our research project began, a major Cotman watercolour of ‘Greta Woods’ came up for sale at Christie’s in London (7 July 2015, lot 101) and with the support of the Art Fund, Leeds Art Fund and The Patricia Hurst Fund, the gallery was able to buy it.

Leeds Greta Woods
John Sell Cotman

Greta Woods, 1805

Leeds Art Gallery

‘Shelter from the Storm’ was the first time that the gallery was able to show it to the public, having been closed for two years for repairs and renovation. After the excitement of the acquisition, this was a frustration, especially for me since it was an important subject to my previous researches on Cotman for ‘Cotman in the North in 2005’. At that time I failed to discover the exact location of the subject for myself, but was directed to the spot by an email from Mrs Frances Bennett on 11 December 2007.

Greta Wood photo
Greta Woods, Rokeby Park
Photograph taken by David Hill, 5 May 2008, 14.30

I wrote in the commentary: ‘The relationship to the site is so close as to seem uncanny, sufficiently to raise the question as to whether the watercolour might have been painted direct from nature. Leeds has a similarly-sized example in ‘The Shady Pool’ which is certainly so, and although the complications of the relieved lights of the foliage against the darker background are greater in the present example, there seems no reason that Cotman could not have completed this direct from nature. It is a sheltered spot and but a short walk from the house in which he was staying: He could have set up a stool and drawing frame quite easily, and stayed long enough at the house for there have been quite sufficient time to bring this to a careful state of completion, even working on it over successive days. Given social distractions of bathing in the river, leching after the ladies, and letting his dog get up to mischief (see Hill 2005, p.103 ff] this might well account for the fact that he seems to have done little else whilst actually staying at the house’.

Greta Woods Cotmania page

‘Greta Woods’ was one of Cotman’s most celebrated subjects in the early 1920s. It was exhibited at the Tate in 1922 and was one of the first Cotman watercolours to be reproduced in colour when it was published in Paul Oppe’s book on Cotman in 1923. Sydney Kitson was inspired to try to discover the spot and his ‘Cotmania’ notebook for 1928-9 (Volume 3) records that he made a Cotman tour of the north of England and on ‘2 October 1928; ‘Went to Greta Bridge, wandered along the river to the junction of Tees & Greta. The little bridge spanning a [?fushet] (now dry) in Lewis Fry’s drawing is still there.

Hondartza catalogue #2

The watercolour has ever since been one of Cotman’s best-loved and most frequently exhibited watercolours. Hondartza became fascinated by the large number of labels and stickers on the back recording its history and its travels, and made a watercolour directly in response. Appropriately the watercolours have since been acquired by Leeds Art Gallery, and can remain in permanent dialogue with their sources.

TO FOLLOW: Part 6,’Storm’

Hordartza Key image

John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm, Part #4

This is the fourth instalment recording the recent exhibition of ‘John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm’, held at Leeds Art Gallery, 13 October 2017 to 21 January 2018. Here, we explore the framed works shown in the principal room under the theme of ‘Shelter’.

Shelter intro

Cotman had a strong sense of the growing philistinism of his times. His work may be seen as an aesthetic antidote to that, his studio as a harbour for his soul and his house as a refuge for his family.

Cotman intended that his great new house should be a school of art where the nobility and gentry of Norfolk and the citizens of Norwich might forgather to receive his instructions in the elegant arts of drawing and design. He furnished the house with casts from the antique, with armour and bric-a-brac, and with models of ships of all sorts, from cobles to men-of-war; while selected examples of his drawings and etchings were hung on the walls of the numerous rooms.’
Sydney Kitson, Life of John Sell Cotman, 1937, p.247, on Cotman’s house in Norwich, 1824.

Shelter #1

A small boy, aged perhaps two or three, wearing a sailor’s cap. Possibly a portrait of Francis Walter Cotman, c.1819
Cotman was particularly tender to his children.
This affectionate sketch probably records his fourth child, Francis Walter, who was born in 1816. At that time the Cotman family lived in a (still-surviving) small house at Southtown, Yarmouth. This drawing might very well record a day out at the beach.

The Gleaner; ?Ann Cotman, the daughter of John Sell Cotman, aged about twelve, c.1824
Cotman made many sketches and drawings featuring children. Many of them may be of his own family. The similarity of this girl’s profile to depictions of Mrs John Sell Cotman suggests a family relationship. The model here could be Cotman’s only daughter, Ann, who was born in 1812, and appears here to be about twelve years of age.
Ann became a talented draftswoman in her own right, and assisted her father in his drawing school activities.

Shelter #2

A shady pool on the river Greta near Rokeby, 1805
After two weeks at Rokeby, Cotman stayed on at the nearby Morritt Arms at Greta Bridge.
In his letters he describes bathing every day in the river a short way above Greta Bridge. In between times he painted this from nature. The site is perfectly recognisable today, and still a good spot for swimming (with care!).

The Overgrown Well, c.1809
After 1809 Cotman developed a library of drawings for his students to borrow and copy.
The Times said: ‘it shows the artistic quality that great man cannot help getting into. Everything in it is very carefully planned, you see how everything is done – the stylisation of the foliage and the tinting of the individual bricks or stones – and yet the total effect is intensely though quietly emotional.’
Presented by Robert Hawthorn Kitson.

The Refectory of Walsingham Priory, Norfolk, c.1808
From about 1808 Cotman sequestered himself amongst the quiet churches and abbeys of Norfolk. Walsingham is in north Norfolk, not far from Wells-next-the-Sea and the subject remains recognisable.
Cotman was particularly attracted to humble dwellings – ‘cots’ as they were called. This appears to be a carpenter’s bothy. Records show that there was building work occurring in nearby Walsingham Hall.
The watercolour belonged to Sir Michael Sadler, who was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds 1911-1923.

Shelter #3

A Dutch Pikeman after an etching in Jacob de Gheyn’s, ‘Wapenhandelinghe’, published in The Hague, 1607, c.1825
A Dutch Pikeman after an etching in Jacob de Gheyn’s, ‘Wapenhandelinghe’, published in The Hague, 1607, c.1825
A Dutch Musketeer after an etching in Jacob de Gheyn’s, ‘Wapenhandelinghe’, published in The Hague, 1607, c.1825
A Dutch Musketeer after an etching in Jacob de Gheyn’s, ‘Wapenhandelinghe’, published in The Hague, 1607, c.1825
This is group of four watercolour studies of soldiers. The costumes have been thought to indicate that they are Spanish, but in fact they are Dutch, and based on an important set of etchings by the artist Jacob de Gheyn. Dutch weapons drill was the most disciplined in Europe and remains the foundation of military drill exercises even today
Cotman amassed a large collection of historical etchings, books, armour and weapons. Most of this was sold to pay off debts in 1834. The sale included two lots of prints ‘Mounted on drawing paper, and half-bound in volumes’, nos. 72 ‘Swiss, German and French costumes, 50 coloured plates’ and 73. A collection of Swiss costumes, beautifully finished. Military costumes and antique dresses, 43 plates’ that might have contained the originals of Cotman’s studies. As it is the first lot fetched 2 shillings, and the second failed to sell.

An artist receiving visitors in his studio, c.1833
This is one of several scholar compositions that Cotman made in the 1830s.
Here an artist receives grand visitors in his studio. The artist is, however, as distinguished as his visitors. The subject might almost be Rubens receiving the Duke of Alba and the Bishop of Antwerp if such a visitation ever occurred. Either way, it was certainly an idea of the kind of attention that Cotman would have liked to have received at his studio in Norwich.

Shelter #4

A Scholar in his Study, (pencil) c.1833
A Scholar in his Study, (etching) 1833
This is one of a series of etchings that Cotman made in 1833, in this case clearly made in emulation of the great Dutch artist Rembrandt.
Like Rembrandt, Cotman created a home and studio filled with art and historical furniture and objects. At Norwich in the 1820s and 1830s he lived in a grand house (still surviving) on the Bishop’s Plain. Like Rembrandt ill-fortune forced him to sell it all at a pittance.

A Scholar in his Study, c.1833
This watercolour is a coloured sketch for the subject engraved in 1833.
The model appears to have been Cotman’s eldest son, Miles Edmund, who was twenty-one in 1831, and worked alongside his father in the Cotman studio.
It is the key image of a series of subjects from the 1830s exploring scholarly immersion in books and art and antiques; the haven that he tried to create in his Norwich home.
Collection Professor David Hill
See previous article in SublimeSites.co:

TO FOLLOW: Part #5 ‘Cotmania’, ‘Greta Woods’ and ‘Archive Blues’

Shelter Key image

John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm, Part #3

This is the third instalment recording the recent exhibition of ‘John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm’, held at Leeds Art Gallery, 13 October 2017 to 21 January 2018.

Lyons hanging #1

Large Lyons #1

The main room of the exhibition was devoted to framed works. We divided the display into three main sections, ‘Modernity’, ‘Shelter’ and ‘Storm’ The remainder of this part documents the first section. Other sections will follow. The individual works are given with the original text labels. Those in the actual exhibition were severely edited. Each image is also accompanied by a link to the full-length discursive entry given in the complete catalogue of the Leeds Cotmans at http://www.cotmania.org.

The theme of ‘Modernity’ was the discovery of Cotman by progressive artists and collectors in the years between the two World Wars. The first critical biography and appreciation of Cotman was published in 1926 by Solomon Kaines-Smith, who was curator of Leeds Art Gallery at the time. We opened this section with his appraisal of Cotman’s relevance:

‘In the years following the war, down to the present day, his influence has been more marked than ever. A world tired of violence, whether of action or thought, prefers simplicity to ‘simplification,’ austerity to brutality, order to arrogance, seriousness to self-consciousness, and is even beginning to distinguish between genius and eccentricity.’
Solomon Charles Kaines Smith, Cotman, 1926, p.154

Modernity #1

Pont Aberglaslyn, North Wales, c.1806
Cotman saw this subject on his tours to North Wales of 1800 and 1802, when he was still a teenager. He was still only twenty-four when he painted this.
This is Leeds’s very first Cotman acquisition, bought in 1922.

Modernity #3

On the Greta above Devil’s Elbow, near Rokeby. Called ‘Brignall Banks on the Greta’, c.1805
This is an example of Cotman’s uniquely abstracting approach to nature as well as the radical obscurity of his subject choice.
Kitson saw this when it was in the collection of the artists Agnes and Norman Lupton. They were born in Leeds and gave their collection to the gallery in 1952.

The Ploughed Field
, c.1805
This is probably a subject in the Wolds a few miles north of York, near Brandsby Hall where Cotman stayed with his friends the Cholmeley family.
This is one of the best-known examples of Cotman’s poetry of the pastoral. None of his works have been exhibited more widely or more often.

Barnard Castle from Towler Hill, 1805
In 1805 Cotman stayed at Rokeby Hall, near Barnard Castle, and spent several weeks painting and sketching from nature.
Sydney Kitson bought this at the height of the Great Economic Slump in 1932, being sent to auction by the Worsley family of Hovingham Hall, North Yorkshire.

The Harvest Field – A Pastoral, exhibited 1810
This is one of Cotman’s most important exhibition watercolours.
It takes the same landscape as ‘Barnard Castle from Towler Hill’, exhibited nearby, but transforms it into an imaginary Arcadian idyll.
Pastoral had particular appeal in the dynamically changing world of the Industrial Revolution, and equally in the uncertain, and rapidly shifting times following World War I. It may be due a revival today.

Modernity #4

Cows standing in shallow water below the bridge at Bridgnorth, c.1806
Long known as ‘Bridge and Cows’ the subject was recently identified at Bridgnorth. The steps to the right still survive. Cotman visited Bridgnorth on his tours to Wales in 1800 and 1802.
In 1806 Cotman gave up trying to make a living in London. His approach was too austere for popular taste.
He returned to his native Norwich but he did not at all compromise the new austerity of his approach.

Lake at Trentham Park, Staffordshire, 1806
Known as ‘Entrance to a Park’, this subject has recently been identified as Trentham Park, Staffordshire the home of the Marquess of Stafford.
The Staffords were important patrons and Cotman had high hopes of an invitation to visit them in 1806. His uncompromising approach does not seem to have been appreciated.

On the River Yare, c.1809
Whilst developing his Norwich drawing school, Cotman also began to paint regularly in oils. This subject records a subject on the river Yare somewhere downstream of Norwich.
Cotman’s oil paintings are little studied. They are completely outside the norm for their times, especially if compared to the virtuosity of his contemporary, J.M.W.Turner. Cotman take reticence and quietude into altogether new territory.

A river spanned by two-arched bridge, called ‘Tan y Bwlch’, c.1825
In the mid 1820s Cotman threw himself back into painting after more than ten years of architectural etching projects.
He drew many subjects from his sketches made in Wales more than twenty years previously. But now more than ever he reduced topography to poetics of colour, application, composition and design.

To Follow: Part 4 ‘Shelter’

Part 3 key image

John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm: Part#2

This is the second instalment recording the recent exhibition of ‘John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm’, held at Leeds Art Gallery, 13 October 2017 to 21 January 2018.

Small lyons - visitor

One of the key features of the exhibition was the large number of Cotman’s pencil sketches that were on display.

Cotman sketches text board

Kitson left over eight hundred of these to Leeds, but only a handful have ever been exhibited. Part of the problem is their size; most are quite small, some no bigger than postage stamps. Kitson had mounted them all himself in hand-made watercolour paper mounts, and they have survived in that form to the present, boxed in specially made solander cases.

We wanted to convey the sense we had enjoyed looking at them in the security of the print room. A drawing held in the hand is a quite different and more intimate experience than one framed and fastened to a wall.

Sketch array Hondartza

We wanted to show them just as they were in Kitson’s mounts, and offer the idea of the haptic encounter, even if that can’t literally be given in an exhibition.

Sketches hanging array

We tried various solutions, but eventually hit upon the idea of placing them as it were on easel rails. As if they had just been put there, and might just as easily be picked up again.

Sketch arrays

Cumulatively Cotman’s sketches are like the pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle. As we found them in Kitson’s boxes they are sorted into rough groups; figures, ships and boats, landscapes, architecture, horses and carts, and so on. But except for a few examples there are no dates and no record of whatever might have ever have been their relationships one to another. Most of the three- year cataloguing project, the results of which are now published in http://www.cotmania.org, had been to begin to try and work out subjects, dates and relationships. We hope we have laid down some good foundations.

2017 exhibition sketches #2 ss

One particularly interesting aspect of the exhibition was the contribution of contemporary artist Hondartza Fraga. She worked behind the scenes with the curator, archivist, volunteers, technicians and myself, and produced an extensive body of work as a result.

Hondartza catalogue SS

Her work can be studied more extensively at her website: http://www.hondartzafraga.com/about/

and the Cotman work is archived at

In the sketches section of the exhibition she made two animations. In one she took a sketch of willow fronds and brought it to life with a gentle breeze, and in another she too a drawing of a sailing ship and its tender in harbour, and made them ebb back and forth as if on a breathing tide.

Hondartza animation tree

Hondartza animation boat

The animations played on two ipads, mounted behind watercolour paper mats of the same size and tone as the drawings. The screens were a similar tone to the drawings, and took most visitors completely by surprise. All of a sudden, the sketch that they were looking at was moving. The effect was subtle and understated like Cotman’s work more generally, and the result (once recognised) equally intriguing and beguiling.

Hondartza placing animation

NEXT: Section by section guide to main exhibition.

Sketches close up key image

John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm Part#1

Many of you appear to have missed the exhibition of ‘John Sell Cotman: Shelter from the Storm’, held at Leeds Art Gallery, 13 October 2017 to 21 January 2018. This is a shame, since Leeds has one of the finest collections of Cotmans in the world, and this was the first time ever that two hundred of his wonderful pencil sketches have been exhibited. This was quite apart from nearly forty major works, and the major works by Cotman at Leeds rank amongst the most important in the world.

2017 exhibition watercolours pp

Didn’t hear about it? Well, the art gallery did promote it energetically to the press. Sadly, Cotman isn’t altogether what the modern journalist finds exciting, and the media almost universally ignored it. Read on, and some perspective on that might develop.

Shelter promo

Nor was there any printed catalogue of the show. So Sublimesites.co will endeavour to produce a record of it. In this section you will find an introduction to the show’s argument, and in a subsequent part a series of installation and behind-the-scenes shots.


In 1937 the Leeds architect Sydney Kitson left his collection of nearly 850 Cotman sketches drawings and watercolours to Leeds Art Gallery. Just before his death he saw published his life’s work, the still not superseded Life of John Sell Cotman.

Kitson Life cover pp

As part of Sydney Kitson’s bequest Leeds also received an unrivalled archive of his notebooks, letters, drawings, photographs, cuttings, transcriptions and card indexes, out of which he had painstakingly constructed the foundational biography of Cotman. When the book was published Kitson selected two sketches to best represent Cotman out of the hundreds that he had collected.

Normandy women sketchThe first was a quick note of a young woman in traditional dress at a Normandy market in 1820. This was traced in gold block and printed on the spine.

Kiitson cover Normandy girl

The second was a study of a Blasted Oak on an exposed hill, which was printed on the centre of the front cover.

Blasted oak sketch

Between them they stand for two key aspects of Cotman’s artistic practice. The first being an enduring sense of human compassion and tenderness, the second being a sense of his own and humanity’s vulnerability to the winds of change and fortune. When the Blasted Oak was drawn, it stood for the withering effects of the times on Cotman’s hopes and situation. Soon after Kitson’s book was published the image came to stand for the withering effects of War.

Kitson cover blasted oak

Kitson’s Cotmans were collected between wars. In 1922 the Tate held a major retrospective exhibition of Cotman. Four years after the end of the First World War, this struck a generation with the force of a revelation. Kitson immediately dedicated the remainder of his life to the artist and documented his researches in a series of annual notebooks that he called ‘Cotmania’. Leafing through their pages, a fascinating story of his explorations and increasing immersion emerges. One particular impression is of how strongly Cotman represents a modern sense of the Pastoral. An antidote to the temper of the times.

Cotmania spine ss

The Leeds Cotmans have been newly catalogued, and a wealth of new information discovered. This is all to be published in a new online catalogue to coincide with the exhibition. Our commitment has been to ‘Rethink Cotman’. It is obvious now that there will be a multitude of ways of ‘(Re)Thinking Cotman’, and this exhibition will hopefully be the first of many. The whole collection and a huge amount of the archive is now online at http://www.cotmania.org.

Cotmania home page

Cotmania filter images

Our approach in the exhibition was to take our structure from Kitson’s own notebooks. And to plot the development of the collection from the year of the first acquisition in 1923, through to Kitson’s death in 1937 against contemporary events and acquisitions. The story that emerged is of the parallels between the times in which Cotman himself worked, and his own sense of their brutality, and the times in which Kitson and Leeds built their Cotman collection, culminating in the chaos and destruction of World War II.

Barnard Castle SS
John Sell Cotman
Barnard Castle from Towler Hill, 1805
Leeds Art Gallery
Full details: https://cotmania.org/works-of-art/42701
Sydney Kitson bought this in 1932, pretty much at the height of the Great Slump.

For Cotman, the sense of the pastoral, humanistic sympathy, and the artistically sensitive and subtle were values somewhat at a premium in his own lifetime. In the interwar years of boom, great depression, and a drift to fascism and war, the same values, projected in Cotman, must have seemed at a premium to Kitson. And amidst a contemporary babble of media hype, hysteria, and hyperbole, we rather hoped that the visitor to the exhibition might be prompted to ruminate over what remains of Cotman’s values today.

Ploughed Field SS
John Sell Cotman
The Ploughed Field, 1805c
Leeds Art Gallery
Full details: https://cotmania.org/works-of-art/41889
‘It represents the complete antithesis to the strident, clamouring competition that for the most part was art in exhibition in the early nineteenth century: So antithetical, in fact as to exceed all context for its age, and it continues to challenge expectations in a visual environment that has taken a taste for the histrionic to hyperbolic levels.’

More anon:

Kitson cover blasted oak key image

John Sell Cotman: A Harbour for the Soul – Postscript

This is a postscript to a three-part article presenting a recently rediscovered watercolour of ‘The Student’ by John Sell Cotman. In that I explored the ways in which that composition and various re-iterations reflected the ambitions of Cotman’s artistic life in Norwich, and its Rembrandtian collapse. Here I present a related composition, ‘The Ecclesiatic’ the original drawing of which resurfaced in an auction whilst I was in the process of writing the original article.

Ecclesiastic drawing DH SS
John Sell Cotman
A priest seated at a table reading a bible on a stand. Called ‘An Ecclesiastic’, c.1832-33
Graphite (or conte crayon) on white wove ?etching paper, watermarked ‘J Whatman/ 1831’, image within ruled graphite line 205 x 154 mm, on sheet 234 x 185 mm
Collection of the author

The subject is a middle-aged man in priest’s robes, seated by a window left, where there is a large crucifix, looking right to read in a large book, on a lectern, evidently a Bible to judge from the bookmark embroidered with a cross. His right hand reaches across his body to turn the page, whilst his left cradles his chin in thought. The image is inscribed JSC in monogram in the bottom right hand corner.

The drawing is the basis of an etching made by Cotman in 1833, but first published by Charles Muskett of Norwich in an edition of Eight Etchings by John Sell Cotman, now first published, in 1846. Kitson, Life, 1937, pp.300-1 relates that ‘According to a note by Dawson Turner in his copy.. these plates were executed in 1833.’ Cotman used the series to explore a series of subjects typical of Dutch Masters of the seventeenth century. The present plate is particularly Rembrandtian in its concept and execution.

Eccesiastic etching SS

John Sell Cotman
A priest seated at a table reading a bible on a stand. Called ‘An Ecclesiastic’, 1833
Etching on india paper pressed on stiff, heavyweight etching paper, image 197 x 145 mm on plate 204 x 151 mm: Full sheet as published, 492 x 336 mm
Inscribed on plate in bottom right corner of image ‘JSC’ in monogram.
Leeds Art Gallery, bequest of Sydney Decimus Kitson, LEEAG.1949.0009.0774
This etching is listed on the online catalogue of the Leeds Art Gallery collection of John Sell Cotman, but funding for the project extended only to fully cataloguing the drawings. I am hoping to be able to work on the prints at some future opportunity.
See: https://cotmania.org/works-of-art/211008

The 1846 edition was printed to the most exacting standards as proof impressions on an extremely fine india paper, cut just slightly larger than the image but within the plate margin, and pressed into a large sheet of heavyweight, stiff, etching paper. Registration of the india paper must have been absolutely critical, and the impressions are testimony to the heyday of intaglio printing, just at the point where it was being superseded by new processes such as lithography and photography.

The mount of the Leeds impression is inscribed in graphite by an unknown hand ‘The Spanish Student’, and that is the title by which it is described in the Leeds Concise Catalogue of 1976 et seq. There appears to be some confusion here, for Kitson also used that title in relation to the subject of another plate in the series – of ‘A Scholar in his Study’, and of a drawing for that subject in the Leeds collection (LEEAG.1949.0009.0609). Kitson Life 1937 p.301 describes the present subject as ‘an ecclesiast in his study’ which is clearly more appropriate.

Ecclesiat detail monogram

The monogram is an interesting feature. His use of this device is occasional – it occurs for example in etchings of ‘The West Front of Castle Acre Priory’, ‘Doorway of Wroxham Church’ and ‘The Bishop’s Palace Gate, Norwich’, made by Cotman 1813, c.1812 and 1814 for his Norfolk Antiquities series. But is also occurs in work from the 1830s, for example a watercolour of the ‘Interior of the Chancel of Walsoken Church, Norfolk’, dated 1830 and sold Christie’s 29 March 1983, no.128. No systematic collation has ever been attempted, but in any case there seems to be no pattern or consistency, other than the suggestion that he entertained (at least from time to time) the ambition of establishing a marque for his work.

It is probably also worth remarking on the overt religiosity of the present subject. The subject in this composition is wearing a biretta. This takes many forms today, but historically is academic dress for those holding a doctorate from a pontifical university, or someone more generally with an academic religious training. This is an underexplored area of Cotman’s life and work. There are quite sufficient subjects in his oeuvre to suggest a significant interest in religious devotion. The subject of ‘’Velazquez designing his celebrated picture of the Crucifixion’ discussed in the last part is one such but others include a pair of oil paintings of ‘A Monk’ and ‘A Priest’ at Norwich Castle Museum. These all date from the 1830s and I have been tempted to wonder whether this might somehow be related to the passing of Catholic emancipation in the UK in 1829?

The main body of this article, however has explored the significance of these subjects in terms of Cotman’s situation in Norwich in the later 1820s and early 1830s. The etching of the present subject was made as part of the same series as that of ‘The Student discussed in the previous parts.

Many of the etchings in this series are Rembrandtian in character, and Kitson observes that the etching of this subject is one of the finest. Both subjects have the idea of scholarship taking place in a secure haven of contemplation, and rich in resources; missals, globes, stands and books. Both represent a nostalgic fantasy of a more civilized age and an indictment of the present times. From late 1823 Cotman tried to maintain his desired world in a large house on Bishop’s Plain in Norwich, and stocked it with books, art, armour, antiques and fabrics, and the whole lumber of the London and Norfolk salerooms. Sadly it became rapidly apparent that all this was truly beyond his means. He suffered from recurrent bouts of anxiety, paranoia and depression until it all was perforce dispersed in a sale in 1834. But artists must have such stuff in their lives; they must feed their imaginations; it is a compunction and necessity. In paying homage in these etchings to Rembrandt, Cotman must have been well aware that Rembrandt’s own imaginative sphere had famously imploded in his later years, and that, in the face of bankruptcy in 18657, he was forced to sell off his house and all its contents. Rembrandt’s story still provokes wonder at the philistinism of a world that could have allowed that. There must have been much there to feed Cotman’s sense of empathy.

There might be some more specific allusion to those circumstances in the subject of ‘The Ecclesiast’. It does not seem to have been previously noted that the subject is an iconographic echo of a long tradition of depictions of St Jerome in his study.

St Jerome came to be the patron saint of archaeologists, Biblical scholars, librarians, students and translators. He is principally known for his library of pagan and classical texts, holding onto it tenaciously and retiring from Rome to Bethlehem to devote himself to translating the Bible into Latin. His library was destroyed in 415 when Bethlehem was attacked by bandits. For such a bibliophile as Cotman, fearing raids from philistines all around, this must have seemed an especially prescient choice of subject when he was forced to consign his own library to the hammer in 1834.

In the discussion of the composition of ‘The Student’ in Part 3 I made the suggestion that the figure in that case was derived from a portrait drawing by John Sell Cotman of his son Miles Edmund.

by Horatio Beevor Love, pencil and wash, 1830
Portrait of John Sell Cotman by Horatio Beevor Love
Graphite and watercolour wash, 10 3/4 x 8 1/4 in, 273 x 210 mm
London, National Portrait Gallery, NPG1372
Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery;

Here, I might suggest that the figure of the ecclesiast is a self-portrait. In 1830 the artist Horatio Beevor Love painted Cotman in his study. Although there are significant differences in the details, the set of the head, body and shoulders is very alike, and in closer detail, the angle and silhouette of the head and shoulders is identical, and apart from an alteration in the angle of gaze, so is the structure and treatment of the eyes and nose.

David Hill, January 2018