The artists of the Norwich School of Painters. Part 1 – John Sell Cotman.

John Sell Cotman by his son, Miles Edmund Cotman

In the art world one often hears about Schools. Not just meaning art establishments but denoting a group of artists who work from a specific location. Prime examples of this are the Barbizon School, which was active from about 1830 through to 1870, and takes its name from the village of Barbizon, France, near the Forest of Fontainebleau. Probably the best known School in Britain was the Newlyn School, an art colony of artists based in or around Newlyn, a fishing village adjacent to Penzance, on the south coast of Cornwall, from the 1880s until the early twentieth century.  A few blogs ago I wrote about Francis Danby who was part of the Bristol School.

Village in Normandy, France, Noon by John Sell Cotman (1817-1820)

In this blog I am looking at a group of artists who worked out of the county of Norfolk, specifically the town of Norwich. These were painters of the Norwich School, or Norwich Society of Artists, which came into being in 1803 in the town of Norwich and was the first provincial art movement in Britain. The area around Norwich was very picturesque and a landscape painter’s idyll. The Scottish miniaturist, Andrew Robertson who was a friend of Constable, visited Norwich in 1812 and was full of praise for the town’s vitality, writing in a letter:

“…I arrived here a week ago and find it a place where the arts are very much cultivated….some branches of knowledge, chemistry, botany etc are carried to a great length.   General literature seems to be pursued with ardour which is astonishing when we consider that it does not contain a university, and is merely a manufacturing town…”

Robertson continued, talking about the quality of music in the city and then turned his thoughts to the city’s art:

“…Painting and Drawing are as much esteemed, and many are nearly as great proficient….The study of landscape about the town are infinitely beautiful and inexhaustible. The buildings, cottages etc are charming and have invited people to the general practice of drawing, or rather painting in watercolours from nature, assisted by man of considerable abilities as a teacher and landscape painter…”

The Norwich Society of Artists was founded in 1803 by John Crome and Robert Ladbrooke and their idea was that artists could meet and exchange ideas. The Society set down its aims as being:

“…an enquiry into the rise, progress and present state of painting, architecture, and sculpture, with a view to point out the best methods of study to attain the greater perfection in these arts…”

Drop Gate, Duncombe Park, Yorkshire by John Sell Cotman (1805)

The Society, once formed had their first meeting in a local tavern, The Hole in the Wall. Two years later they moved to new premises and the extra space allowing the members to use as a studio and also exhibit their work. Their first exhibition was held in 1805 and it was a great success, so much so, that they held an annual exhibition there for the next twenty years. Unfortunately, the building had to be demolished but three years later, in 1828, the Society members regrouped and became the Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts.

The leading light of the Norwich School of Painters was John Crome who then attracted many friends and pupils until his death in 1821. Leadership of the Society then fell on John Sell Cotman, who had been a member of the society since 1807, and who continued to keep the Society together until he left Norwich for London in 1834. The Society effectively ceased to exist from that date.

Portrait of John Sell Cotman by Alfred Clint

One of the most well-known artists associated with the Norwich School was John Sell Cotman. Cotman was born on May 16th 1782 in the East Anglia town of Norwich, the son of Edmund Cotman and his wife Ann. He was the eldest of ten children. His father, Edmund Cotman, formerly a barber but latterly a draper by trade, had married Ann Sell. John Sell Cotman initially studied at the Norwich School, which is one of the oldest schools in the world having been founded in 1096. John’s father had intended that once his son had completed his education, he would join him in the family business. However, during his time at school John Cotman had developed a love of art and was determined that he would not spend his working life behind a shop counter. At the age of 16, he left home and went to London to study art.

Houses at Epsom by John Sell Cotman (1800)

Whilst living in London he managed to earn some money by colouring aquatints for Anglo-German lithographer and publisher, Rudolph Ackerman, who had, in 1795, established a print-shop and drawing-school in The Strand. Ackermann had set up a lithographic press and begun a trade in prints.

Doctor Thomas Monro

It was whilst Cotman was in London that he also met Doctor Thomas Monro, who was an avid art collector. Monro was Principal Physician of the Bethlem Royal Hospital and one-time the consulting physician to King George III. Besides being an amateur painter and art collector, he was also a patron to a number of young aspiring artists including Thomas Girtin. Monro had a house in Adelphi Terrace, London where he had his studio and a country house in Merry Hill, a suburb of Bushey just fifteen miles from the capital. Monro liked to surround himself with other artists and J.M.W. Turner was a frequent visitor. He ran an art Academy where he would offer evening art classes, some of which were attended by John Sell Cotman.

The Devil’s Bridge North Wales by John Sell Cotman (c.1801)

John Sell Cotman managed to gain the patronage of Monro and through him met many of the leading British artists of the time and it was through his friendship with Turner, Girtin and Peter de Wint that Cotman continued his artistic development. He enjoyed taking trips out to sketch and it is believed that in 1800 he accompanied Thomas Girtin on a sketching trip to North Wales. A painting which came from one of his trips to North Wales was his 1801 work entitled The Devil’s Bridge, North Wales. A pencil drawing of this subject can be found in Leeds City Art Gallery, and it may well have been the inspiration for this very finished example of a Cotman watercolour.

Harlech Castle by John Sell Cotman (c.1800-1802)

Considering Cotman had had no formal art tuition it is amazing the artistic standard he had reached for someone of such a young age for when he was aged just eighteen, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy showing five works, four depicting scenes from the Surrey countryside and one was of Harlech Castle. When touring North Wales in 1800, he made a series of drawings and watercolours of Welsh subjects during the following years. This watercolour of Harlech Castle in North Wales is related to a sketch he drew on July 30th 1800. The castle at Harlech was built in the thirteenth century by Edward I, and was often represented by artists at this time. It features in watercolours by Girtin, Varley and Turner as well as Cotman.

The success Cotman believed would come about in London never materialised and in 1806 he returned to his hometown of Norwich and began earning his living as an art tutor. When he returned to Norwich he also joined the Norwich Society of Artists.  Cotman exhibited 20 works, including six portraits, at the society’s exhibition in 1807, and 67 works including some oils, in 1808. In 1811 he became president of the society.

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1806)

One of my favourite works by Cotman is a watercolour entitled Greta Bridge measuring just 22cms x 33cms. Cotman completed the small work in 1805 which can be found in the British Museum. A second version of the painting, a much larger one, (30cms x 50cms), was completed by Cotman in 1810 and is housed in the Norwich Castle Museum. Both of these watercolours recreate the rural solitude and tranquillity of the Greta area of North Yorkshire, where Cotman spent the summers of 1803 – 1805. The Greta Bridge in this painting spanned the river Greta in North Yorkshire near the gates of Rokeby Park. John Cotman had arrived at Rokeby on the evening of July 31st 1805, accompanied by his friend and patron, Francis Cholmeley. It had been arranged in advance that the two men were to stay as guests of the owner of Rokeby Park, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt. Cotman stayed at the house for about three weeks and when his hosts left on business, he remained nearby, taking up lodgings in a room at the local inn, which is the large building to the left of the bridge. Cotman then continued the work he had begun along the river Greta that skirts the park. It is a wonderfully balanced composition depicting the Greta Bridge, with its striking, single arch, which runs horizontally across the picture, in some way dividing it in two and yet uniting it into a single scene. The arch of the bridge epitomizes a great feat of engineering, which Cotman, with his love of architecture, admired. The structure we see before us was designed by John Carr of York, and built in 1773 for Morritt’s father, John Sawrey Morritt, who was a well-known collector of classical antiquities. The bridge replaced a Roman single-arched bridge of the same design.

Chateau Navarre, near Evreux, Normandy by John Sell Cotman (1830)

Cotman had a love of bridges and sketched many. For him, a bridge was a meeting point or landmark for travellers and would often be a point of reference on maps where rivers and roads meet. Cotman was fascinated by the interaction of this man-made feature and how it harmoniously interacted with a natural setting.

Dutch Boats off Yarmouth, Prizes during the War by John Sell Cotman (1824)

In 1809, Cotman married Ann Mills, the daughter of a farmer from the nearby village of Felbrigg and the couple went on to have five children. During his time as a drawing master he taught the local banker, botanist and antiquary Dawson Turner and his children. They became close friends and Dawson Turner introduced him to many prospective students. Cotman began to be interested in etchings and issued the first of his in 1811. He moved from Norwich and for the next ten years he lived in the Norfolk coastal town of Yarmouth and this gave him the opportunity to complete a number of seascapes such as his oil painting Dutch Boats off Yarmouth which depicts a coastal scene at Yarmouth and is a reminder of British naval triumphs over the Dutch navy. England and the Dutch Republic, despite having been allied for a century when they again went to war in 1780, a conflict that lasted four years and became known as the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.  The conflict followed secret Dutch trade and negotiations with the American colonies, who, at the time, were in revolt against England.  In the background of the painting we can just make out Yarmouth’s monument to the Norfolk hero, Lord Nelson.

Cley Church, Norfolk by John Sell Cotman

It was around this time that Cotman concentrated on printmaking. The majority of his etchings were architectural in nature, with numerous ones of old Yorkshire and Norfolk buildings. It is more than likely that this move towards etchings and printmaking was due to, and inspired in part by his friend and patron, Dawson Turner. Unlike academic, London-based painters who romanticized the English countryside, John Sell Cotman and other members of the Norwich School painted landscapes in their immediate surroundings. An example of this is his 1818 drawing Cley Church, Norfolk which is a depiction of Saint Margaret’s in the village of Cley-next-the-Sea. It exhibits Cotman’s heightened attention to perspective and architectural detail as opposed to vegetation and atmospheric effects. It is now part of the Art Institute Chicago collection.

Church of St Paul at Rouen

In 1817, Cotman, with help from his patron, made the first of three tours of Normandy and out of these journeys came a book in 1822 entitled, Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, one of various books he illustrated with his etchings. The Etching on Chine Colle entitled Church of St Paul at Rouen was one of Cotman’s illustrations for his book.

Church of Querqueville, Near Cherbourg, from the series Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, etching by John Sell Cotman (1822)

Another etching from the series ‘Architectural Antiquities of Normandy‘ was his work, Church of Querqueville, Near Cherbourg.

In January 1834, through the good auspices of J.M.W. Turner, Cotman gained the post of Master of Landscape Drawing at King’s College School in London, which he held until his death. He and his family left Norwich and relocated to the London borough of Bloomsbury. Two years later, his eldest son Miles Edmond Cotman was appointed to assist him. The taking up of the position at King’s College could not have come at a more fortuitous time as Cotman was beginning to have financial problems. Sadly, with these financial problems, which had afflicted him during most of his working life, came bouts of depression, ill health and despondency brought on by the poor sales of his work. During John Cotman’s tenure at King’s College he taught many artists including Dante Rossetti.

John Sell Cotman’s grave in St. John’s Wood, London

Cotman’s last visit to his home town of Norfolk was in the autumn of 1841, just nine months before his death in London on July 24th, 1842. He was buried in the cemetery at St. John’s Wood Chapel.  The 20th century art historian and painter, Charles Collins Baker, said of John Sell Cotman:

“…a great colourist, whose earlier palette produced that rare plenitude that only masters of exquisite simplicity and restraint compass: from his palette the brown glebe, the black reflection of massed trees in a still river, the grey and gold of weathered stone and plaster, the glinting gold on foliage and the gilded green of translucent leaves have a special and supernal quality of dream pageants rather than of actuality…”

For most of the twentieth century, Cotman was the most widely admired English watercolourist, surpassing even Turner in popularity.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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