There are a few great British artists we remember not for their continuous work over a lifetime, but for a short period of brilliant achievement in an otherwise (apparently) ordinary career.
Two well-known examples are Samuel Palmer, in the case of the ‘visionary’ works painted during the early years of his stay in Shoreham, Kent in 1826-35, and Thomas Jones, Pencerrig, in the case of the remarkable series of ‘buildings paintings’ he made when he was living in Naples in 1782.
A third example is the watercolourist John Sell Cotman (1782-1842). Cotman had a long artistic life, but what shine above all his other work are the watercolour paintings he made during and after his stays in and around Brandsby, Rokeby and Greta Bridge in north Yorkshire and county Durham in 1803-05. Since these pictures were ‘rediscovered’ in the early 20th century they’ve been recognised as a landmark in painting, anticipating modernist developments that took place over a century later. Paintings like Greta Bridge, Hell Cauldron, Composition: a sarcophagus in a pleasure-ground, Scotchman’s Stone and The drop-gate, Duncombe Park, with their modest pastoral subjects, muted and subtle tones and near-abstract use of colour washes, achieve a delicate harmony and a magical equilibrium between natural representation and artistic construction that neither his contemporaries not Cotman himself at other times was able to match. For a short while he seems to have captured a perfect balance: between a beneficent natural world and the marks of man upon it, and between classical forms and themes and an emerging romantic sensibility. The paintings stand today – though still not sufficiently well appreciated – as some of most perfectly achieved works of art ever made in these isles.
David Thompson sums up Cotman’s achievement well:
A great Cotman always jolts one with a kind of delighted surprise. It is not just a question of poetic response to a particular subject, though one does feel grateful that such frequent attraction towards the romantic picturesque can be expressed with such taut, spare elegance. The surprise is formal: the refined but vigorous individuality of the handwriting; the clean-cut clarity of vision; above all that indefinable sense of an inspired mise-en-page – unexpected, dramatic, graceful, unfussed, unfailingly ‘right’. With the hindsight of a later age we tend to say that what excites us is something ‘abstract’ about Cotman’s power of design … This quality of Cotman’s style is quite extraordinary forward-looking – which is what we mean when we flatter ourselves that it can still appear ‘modern’.
In Rajnai (1982), p.17-18.
The magical years 1803-05, though, were the culmination of a lengthy artistic preparation, a critical part of which was spent in Wales.
Cotman was born in Norwich on 16 May 1782. His father was first a barber, then a haberdasher. His parents sent him to the local grammar school, where his artistic talent must have been recognised, because we find him next in London, where he arrived in 1798. He worked as an assistant to Rudolph Ackermann, who published engravings from his premises in the Strand. He was then drawn into the circle of Dr Thomas Monro, the collector who had earlier employed and trained JMW Turner and Thomas Girtin. His rise was rapid: by 1800 he had been awarded the ‘silver palette’ of the Society of Arts, for a ‘drawing of a mill’, and by May 1800 he was exhibiting in the Royal Academy. Cotman joined the ‘Sketching Society’, a group of Monro’s artists who met weekly to draw and illustrate a common text.
At this point, like many of his contemporaries, he decided to broaden his experience, and his subjects, by taking a ‘tour’ – not, like earlier artists, on the Continent, which the Napoleonic wars made difficult territory for travellers, but in Wales.
Wales proved to be important to Cotman, for three reasons. It opened his eyes to highland landscapes unfamiliar to him from his flatland, east country youth. It developed his drawing techniques. And even more important, the scenes he found and the images he made in Wales stayed with him for the rest of his life: over several decades he constantly returned to Wales in his mind in order to refresh his art. Finally, I suggest that Cadair Idris held a strong grip on his artistic imagination at a particular period of his career, long after his visit to the area.
He was following in the footsteps of his fellow painters: Turner visited Wales five times before 1799 and Girtin made several sketching trips to North Wales. Cotman arrived in Wales in July 1800, in the company of an older fellow artist and adherent of Dr Monro, Paul Sandby Munn.
1 Cotman in Wales (1800)
In the 1930s Cotman’s biographer Sydney Kitson reconstructed Cotman’s progress in Wales, in the absence of much other evidence, from the surviving sketches that the artist dated. This is Cotman’s basic itinerary, with references to some of the surviving sketches certainly or possibly linked to the places and times:
- 1 July 1800: Caldicot
Caldicot Castle. Inscribed ‘July 1st 1800’. (Leeds City Art Galleries)
Cotman started from Bristol and probably crossed the Severn at Portskewett, a short distance from Caldicot. The castle there would have been a natural magnet for a travelling artist.
- 2 July 1800: Chepstow
After Caldicot, Chepstow was a natural next (short) step. Kitson (p.19) mentions ‘several drawings of the castle and the bridge’ at Chepstow. Leeds has two drawings of the castle.
In Norwich is a sketch entitled A house by water (Castle Museum, Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 4), inscribed ‘July 2nd, 1800’. It’s a swift drawing, with hasty rough indications of the trees surrounding the substantial house. Jeremy Yates has identified the location as Tintern, just up-river.
- 4 July 1800: Goodrich, Herefordshire
Cotman would have worked his way up the Wye Valley, through Tintern and Monmouth – Kitson mentions sketches of the Monnow Bridge, and of Raglan Castle – before reaching Goodrich. Three dated sketches of the Castle there exist, two of them in Leeds.
It’s also possible that two undated ‘gate’ sketches (both in Norwich) were made near Goodrich:
Man and dog beside a gate at Goodrich Castle, Herefordshire. (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 9)
A gate in a hedge. (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 5)
Gates, it seems, held a special interest, and possibly a special significance, for Cotman throughout his career. They act as the compositional focus of some of his finest paintings, for example The drop gate, Duncombe Park. They may also serve as a visual and conceptual barrier – though a penetrable one – between the world the artist occupies and the world beyond.
Kitson (p.20) mentions sketches at Llanthony Abbey and Brecon, but the next location securely dated is Aberystwyth.
- 18 July 1800: Aberystwyth
Aberystwyth Castle. Dated 18 July 1800. (British Museum)
- 23 July 1800: Barmouth Estuary (?)
From Aberystwyth Cotman presumably travelled north along the Cambrian coast, through Tywyn, towards Harlech. Mountain scene is inscribed ‘July 23 1800’ (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 5). This has been identified speculatively as a view of Cadair Idris, seen across the river Mawddach from Barmouth, although the contours do not seem to tally.
- 26 July 1800: between Barmouth and Harlech
Somewhere between Barmouth and Harlech Cotman sketched A conduit leading to a ?mine. (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 6). This is the most unexpected and unusual of the Welsh sketches. It’s a subject that’s unlikely to have held much appeal to artists other than Cotman. For him it offered a characteristically finely balanced composition, between the strong, not quite horizontal line of the ‘conduit’ and its not quite vertical supporting piers, and between the human construction and its natural environment. Fragments of industrial activity recur in Cotman’s later watercolours: a particularly fine example is Landscape with water-driven tilt-hammer (1805, Norwich).
- 28 July 1800: between Barmouth and Harlech
Two days later, on 28 July, again somewhere between Barmouth and Harlech, Cotman made a sketch of Trees and rocks; study of woodland with large boulders in the foreground and two gnarled trunks of oak trees above (British Museum). The British Museum’s curator claims that this is the earliest Cotman study of trees – so important a subject for him later, especially during his period in north Yorkshire.
- 31 July 1800: Harlech
Harlech Castle was a well-known subject for touring artists, and indeed it was the subject of Cotman’s exhibit at the Royal Academy in May 1800, two months before his first visit to Wales. Presumably he had taken inspiration from the work of one of his predecessors, perhaps Thomas Girtin. Two similar outline sketches exist of the castle, which clearly left a sharp impression on Cotman, who returned to the subject several times in his later work:
Harlech Castle, Wales. Inscribed ‘Harleck July 30th [or 31?] 1800’. (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 7)
Harlech Castle, Wales. Inscribed ‘July 31, 1800’. (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 8)
- August 1800: ‘Near Beddgelert’
Near Beddgelert is inscribed ‘Near Baddkelert/August 1800’. On the verso is a later view of Snowdon c.1809-10. (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 89)
- July 1800: Conwy (?)
Conway Castle. (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 10)
This sketch is inscribed ‘20 July’ but without a year: it could belong to 1802 or later still. This castle, like Harlech, features several times in Cotman’s later pictures.
Kitson conjectures a ‘gathering of artists’ at the house of Sir George Beaumont, a noted collector and patron, in Conwy in July 1800. It is just possible that Thomas Girtin was present, but there’s no evidence that Cotman was there, and indeed there seems to be no direct evidence that he reached Conwy or Caernarfon in 1800, as Kitson and others claim. On the other hand, the castle in both towns were traditional magnets for touring artists of the period, and it would be no surprise if Cotman had been heading to the north Wales coast as the climax of his trip.
Wherever he decided to turn back, it’s likely he returned to England along the old post road via Llangollen, since we have a sketch of Bridgnorth Bridge in Shropshire dated to 1800 (Kitson, p.22).
2 Cotman in Wales (1802)
So ended Cotman’s first tour of Wales. But there was a second, in 1802, again with Paul Sandby Munn as his companion. This tour was conjectured by Sydney Kitson on the basis of dated sketches by Munn, paralleled by undated drawings by Cotman. Kitson’s guess has since been corroborated by the discovery of signatures by both artists, dated 31 July 1802, found in the visitors’ register of an inn at Capel Curig. This time the likely itinerary was: Machynlleth – Dolgellau (Cadair Idris) – Barmouth – Harlech – Tan-y-bwlch – Capel Curig – Llyn Ogwen – Llanberis (Dolbadarn Castle) – Caernarfon – Llangollen.
Cotman’s sketches that apparently derive from this tour include:
A fulling mill near Malwydd [Mallwyd], Wales (Sheffield Museums)Dolgelly, north Wales (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 23)
As far as we know, Cotman never returned to Wales. But his two Welsh tours achieved two things for him: they developed his artistic technique, perhaps helped by the example and tuition of an older colleague, and they deposited in his mind a stratum of places and images that would be of lasting value to his practice in later – often much later – years.
The 1800 and 1802 sketches have never attracted much interest from historians or critics, and some assessments have been dismissive (‘undistinguished’, ‘monotonous’, ‘laboured’). It’s true that his drawing technique at this time may have been conventional, with a heavy reliance on rough hatching.
But his choice of subjects and angles is often far from conventional. A conduit heading to a mine takes a distinctly unusual subject, an industrial track or leat supported on stilts, which obviously appealed to an artist already fascinated by patterns of human activity in a natural setting. The two ‘gate’ sketches, especially Man and dog beside a gate at Goodrich Castle, show the first occurrence of the key cross-barred motif that recurs, six years later, in one of Cotman’s masterpieces, The drop gate, Duncombe Park.
The stimulus that his experiences in Wales gave Cotman in later years was of much more significance that the value of the Welsh sketches in themselves. As Rajnai and Allthorpe-Guyton say
The rugged mountains, barren high peaks and deeply furrowed valleys of Wales made a more lasting and deeper impression on this son of a flat land than anything Cotman had experienced before or would encounter later, including sites of such significance in his work as the banks of the Greta.
Rajnai and Allthorpe-Guyton, p.13.
3 Wales in Cotman
Almost immediately Cotman began to work up his on-location sketches into larger watercolours for exhibition. Brecknock and Llanthony Abbey (Tate) were both exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801. These two and The Devil’s Bridge, Cardigan[shire] (Victoria & Albert) and Cottage in Wales (British Museum) all make vivid use of flood-lighting in the central part of the composition. The tree trunks in the Devil’s Bridge picture look forward to Cotman’s treatment of trees on the banks of the Greta, as in In Rokeby Park and Duncombe Park, Yorkshire (both 1805-06). Aberystwyth Castle is less characteristic of Cotman at his best, while Llangollen shows the influence of Thomas Girtin. In a painting mis-labelled by the Tate Gallery as Carnarvon (Jeremy Yates thinks it is Chepstow) he avoids the typical feature of the town, its Edwardian castle, and instead creates a moody and tonally varied composition of considerable originality.
In the 1802 exhibition at the Royal Academy Cotman showed two more Welsh scenes, including A grind-stone near Harlech, north Wales, which is presumably A waterwheel near Harlech, Merionethshire, north Wales (Norwich). Harlech Castle remained a constant theme throughout Cotman’s career: five watercolours are recorded, the last from the 1830s.
Tan-y-bwlch near Maentwrog proved another location of lasting importance, with several sketches and watercolours of the river Dwyryd, the bridge and the mountains to the north. A version from the 1820s (Leeds) preserves Cotman’s earlier flat-colour style, but now the colours are brighter and more contrasted: the effect is ‘prettier’ and less successful. Another painting from around the same time – the paper can be dated to 1823 – is of Llyn Ogwen (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and is better balanced. This has its origins in Cotman’s tour of 1802, after which both he and Munn developed their sketches into detailed an conventional watercolours (Cotman’s is dated 1803). This later version uses Cotman’s drastically simplified style and subtly graded colours.
A still more resonant location for him was the Mawddach, and especially the views from Barmouth and above Dolgellau towards the mass of Cadair Idris, a mountain first celebrated in art by the founder of the British landscape painting tradition, Richard Wilson.
The Fitzwilliam Museum view of Dolgellau and the Mawddach valley (1804-05), based on the 1802 sketch, shows a conventional, high view of the town, the river and the mountains to the north, following the model of the sketch from the 1802 tour. But Cotman’s treatment of the scene shares characteristics with the pictures he made of Yorkshire at around the same time: flat washes of colour for the river, sky and furthest peaks, dappled colours for the foreground rocks and foliage, and the whole bound in a strong and subtle composition.
The view looking upriver from the Mawddach estuary, with Cadair Idris to the right, held even more attraction for Cotman. A pencil and watercolour picture in Norwich, dated 1801, is a detailed and finished piece in conventional style. A few years later, having greatly simplified his approach to landscape forms, Cotman transformed the same view into an altogether different painting, now in Yale.
One of Cotman’s boldest compositions from his Greta Bridge period (1805) was formerly thought to be a scene from north-east Wales and was entitled ‘Chirk Aqueduct’. David Hill, though, has identified the bridge as Crambe Beck Bridge near Kirkham, Yorkshire. A pencil and wash drawing of 1806 in the Ashmolean Museum also claims to depict Telford’s aqueduct at Chirk, but this attribution is even less likely to be correct.
Probably in 1807 Cotman produced, in pencil and watercolour, a picture traditionally entitled Road to Capel Curig, north Wales (Victoria and Albert Museum). This is almost certainly a rendering of the Pont-y-Pair bridge across the river Llugwy in Betws-y-Coed, which Paul Sandby Munn also drew from the same standpoint, and is a recollection, or re-imagination, of the scene they both saw on their trip to Snowdonia in 1802. Again, it shares many features with the work of Cotman’s classic period. Compositionally the bridge provides the strong horizontal axis he was so fond of. From its central arch the river in flood is treated non-naturalistically, even geometrically, and the mountains and sky the in the distance get the Cotman flat-wash treatment. Human interest is confined to a woman and child (whose arm waves endearingly at the artist) in the foreground, and a man with horses crossing the bridge (also in Munn’s version). Light floods the central and right parts of the picture, including most of the bridge, throwing into sharp relief the mountain behind.
A similar composition and treatment are evident in Pont Aber Glaslyn (Beddgelert Bridge) (Leeds), where water gushes through a two-arched bridge, with the planes of steep, craggy mountains interleaved in the background.
A little later (1809-10), but still in the same ‘Greta Bridge’ style, comes Snowdon, north Wales (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 90). According to conventional opinion the peak is seen from the south-east, with Llyn Gwynant in the foreground, though it’s also possible that the view is from the east, with Glaslyn in the foreground. This is a watercolour, with some added gum, and some details, like the birds and the water, scraped out. Though it isn’t in good condition its restrained monumentality still impresses. The composition harks back to Richard Wilson, particularly his famous painting of Snowdon (seen from Llyn Gwynant) (Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery), but it has a peculiarly Cotmanesque tightness as well as a fine tonal contrast. A later view of Snowdon from Llyn Peris (1824) is in a more conventional style.
Around the same time (1810) Cotman painted Mountain scene in Wales (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 91). This is simpler still than Snowdon in structure. A dark mass of (unidentified) mountain fills a third of the surface, leaving the rest mainly to sky, rendered in Cotman’s usual slabby, abstract way. Scale is given by the inclusion of a woman and her dog. The location hasn’t been identified, but an inscription mentions ‘PSM’, presumably Paul Sandby Munn, so that it’s possible the picture is based on a Munn model.
4 Cotman and Cadair Idris
Much later, probably in the 1830s, it was the dark bulk of Cadair Idris that came to dominate Cotman’s choice of theme within this landscape. The remembered vision of the mountain inspired a series of powerful, dark works. Some are explicitly of Cadair, others may also be. As well as his own recollections Cotman may have drawn on Turner’s remarkable (and similarly atmospheric) views of the mountain, included in his Academical sketchbook of c1798-99:
There are two oil paintings in Norwich, which share a similar format and a similar yellow/brown tonal range. Both of them show in the foreground a scene of cattle in a pool or small lake, their shapes mirrored in the water. The second has a group of trees in the middle ground. A wild highland scene (the top part, and sides) seems to have been bolted on to a more conventional lowland, pastoral one.
The other, larger group of these Cadair paintings – all view the mountain ridge from the north – feature a vivid, deep, intense colour, smalt (cobalt oxide mixed with molten glass).
The painting of the mountain now in Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales, could not be more different from the earlier, more general pictures. By this time Cotman was adding paste (rice or flour) to his watercolours to achieve a thicker, more glowing effect. The composition is drastically simplified. Only a few details are visible in what seems like a view taken as dusk descends of the deep blue mountainside. All traces of the bucolic have been banished. A similar watercolour painting of the mountain is in the British Museum, where the boggy upland in the foreground are suggested by brown, and the firm outline of the higher mountain in blue.
Other paintings in the same series include Cader Idris (location unknown), Mountain landscape with figures (Leeds), Mountain tarn (British Museum) and Welsh mountains (location unknown). Much smaller, almost a miniature is Cattle on a mountain, north Wales (British Museum). The landscape here is bleak. The foreground is dominated by dark grey. Above, a white band, then a horizon with the tiny cattle, suggested by minute brush strokes, and beyond, the mountain, blue at the centre, merging to bright white at the left. The sky is whitish, with greyer shading in the centre. It’s an intense jewel of a picture, sketched with fine delicacy.
These late paintings were small, experimental and made without an eye to commercial sale. Here Cotman turns his back on his earlier achievements and strikes out in a new direction. He’s simplified his style yet further: not by extending his watercolour washes into further abstraction – Tan-y-bwlch turned out not to represent a promising way forward – but by thickening his paint, intensifying a single colour (blue) and focussing his inner eye – on Cadair Idris as he’d seen it thirty years before. Cotman has left the conventions of the picturesque far behind. Like Turner in his sketchbook, he trains his eye and his brush on the mountain summits, in an intense attempt to extract the essence of their wildness and beauty. Classical restraint – tight compositional framing and a subtle harmony of pale colours – have been cast aside in favour of a raw, stripped down account of an exposed land. This is now a frankly romantic sensibility at work.
Sydney Kitson, who had a keen appreciation of Cotman’s styles and was not given to exaggeration, has this to say about these blue paintings:
In these small landscapes Cotman made full use of smalt blue and with the help of this colour and the skilful use of the paste medium his mountains assume a celestial quality, different from anything which has been achieved before or since. (p.348)
4 Why Wales mattered
Cotman is usually, and rightly, associated mainly with the north-east of England and with his native East Anglia and the ‘Norwich school’ of painting. But he found his first artistic feet in the course of his two tours of Wales. He achieved his mature, classic, ‘Greta Bridge’ style only a few years later. It remains a mystery how he arrived at it. The works he completed while in Wales hardly point to the heights he would attain in north Yorkshire. Some of them, though, do give distinct hints of what was to come.
However, the experience of Wales and its landscape never left him. Though he never came back to Wales, again and again he returned in his memory to the scenes he’d visited with Munn when was young, right to the end of this artistic career. Wales provided him with a subject that appealed to collectors and therefore gave him a natural market. But more important, its natural grandeur met his need to build a quiet monumentality out of the superficially modest resources of watercolour painting. He soon found a way of adapting the radically simplified and abstracted style he’d learned in north Yorkshire to the highland landscapes of Wales. And in his late ‘mountain paintings’ he pioneered a darker and even more simplified style that conveys a concentrated and powerful vision.
David Boswell and Corinne Miller, Cotmania & Mr Kitson. Leeds: Leeds City Art Galleries, 1992.
Andrew Hemingway, The Norwich school of painters, 1803-1833. Oxford: Phaedon, 1979.
David Hill, Cotman in the north: watercolours of Durham and Yorkshire. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005.
Adele M. Holcomb, John Sell Cotman. London: Colonnade, 1978.
Sydney D. Kitson, The life of John Sell Cotman. London: Faber, 1937.
Miklos Rajnai (ed.), John Sell Cotman, 1782-1842. London: Herbert Press, 1982.
Miklos Rajnai and Marjories Allthorpe-Guyton, John Sell Cotman, 1782-1842: early drawings (1798-1812) in Norwich Castle Museum. Norwich: Norfolk Museums Service, 1979.
Andrew Wilton, British watercolours, 1750 to 1850, Oxford: Phaedon, 1977.
This article, originally published in August 2014, was expanded and edited in June 2016 in the light of a paper delivered at the ‘Power of place’ conference held at MOMA, Machynlleth on 21 May 2016, in association with the major exhibition ‘Romanticism in the Welsh landscape’. The second of Cotman’s Cadair Idris paintings from Norwich featured in the exhibition. A further revision was made to the article in December 2016 to include Sheffield Museum’s ‘A fulling mill at Mallwyd’.