John Sell Cotman in Wales

August 14, 2014 16 Comments


Cotman Greta Bridge

John Sell Cotman, Greta Bridge (180

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.

Cotman Scotchman's Stone

John Sell Cotman, Scotchman’s Stone, on the Greta, Yorkshire (1808)

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.

Cotman Drop gate

John Sell Cotman, Drop gate, Duncombe Park (1806)

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 Hell Cauldron

John Sell Cotman, Hell Cauldron (1808)

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.

John Sell Cotman, Chepstow Castle 2 (Leeds)

John Sell Cotman, Chepstow Castle (Leeds)


John Sell Cotman, Chepstow Castle 2 (Leeds)

John Sell Cotman, Chepstow Castle (Leeds)

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.

Cotman A house by water

John Sell Cotman, A house by water (1800) (Norwich)

  • 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.

John Sell Cotman, Interior of Goodrich Castle, Arch of the Solar (Leeds)

John Sell Cotman, Interior of Goodrich Castle, Arch of the Solar (Leeds)


John Sell Cotman, Goodrich Castle (Leeds)

John Sell Cotman, Goodrich Castle (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)


John Sell Cotman, Man and dog beside a gate at Goodrich Castle, Herefordshire (1800) (Norwich)

A gate in a hedge. (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 5)

Cotman A gate in a hedge

John Sell Cotman, A gate in a hedge (1800)

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.

Cotman Mountain scene 1800

John Sell Cotman, Mountain scene (1800)

  • 26 July 1800: between Barmouth and Harlech
Cotman Landscape with tilt-hammer

John Sell Cotman, Landscape with water-driven tilt-hammer (1805-06) (Norwich)

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).


John Sell Cotman, A conduit leading to a ?mine (1800) (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)


John Sell Cotman, Harlech Castle, Wales (30 July 1800) (Norwich)

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)

John Sell Cotman, A fulling mill near Malwydd [Mallwyd], Wales (dated ‘1802’) (Sheffield Museums)

Dolgelly, north Wales (Norwich: Rajnai & Allthorpe-Guyton, 23)

Cotman Dolgelly, north Wales c1802 Norwich

John Sell Cotman, Dolgelly, north Wales (1802) (Norwich)

Meanturog Church (National Library of Wales).

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John Sell Cotman, Maenturog Church (undated) (National Library of Wales)

Travelling north from Harlech Cotman and Munn would have passed through Maentwrog (Cotman had visited the village in 1800). Here Cotman visited the church and sketched the interior. The National Library of Wales has a small watercolour drawing of the scene; it is undated and Cotman may have worked it up after his return from Wales. He also stopped at a bridge crossing the river Dwyryd and drew the view up the Vale of Ffestiniog (already a traditional artist’s view), the subject of a later painting (see below).

Llanberis Pass (British Museum): a drawing of the ‘House of the nine stones’.

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.

Cotman Brecknock

John Sell Cotman, Brecknock (nd) (private collection)


Llanthony Abbey 1801 by John Sell Cotman 1782-1842

John Sell Cotman, Llanthony Abbey (nd) (Tate, on loan to Abergavenny Museum and Castle)


Cotman Devil's Bridge

John Sell Cotman, Devil’s Bridge (nd) (Victoria and Albert Museum)


Cotman Cottage in Wales

John Sell Cotman, Cottage in Wales (nd) (British Museum)



John Sell Cotman, Aberystwyth Castle (nd) (Yale Center for British Art)


Llangollen 1801 by John Sell Cotman 1782-1842

John Sell Cotman, Llangollen (1801) (Tate)


Carnarvon 1800 by John Sell Cotman 1782-1842

John Sell Cotman, Carnarvon (nd) (Tate)

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.

Cotman Water wheel Harlech

John Sell Cotman, A waterwheel near Harlech, Merionethshire, north Wales (Norwich)


Harlech Castle circa 1800-2 by John Sell Cotman 1782-1842

John Sell Cotman, Harlech Castle (nd) (Tate)


Cotman Llyn Ogwen

John Sell Cotman, Llyn Ogwen (c1823) (Liverpool)

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.

John Sell Cotman, Tan-y-Bwlch (Leeds)

John Sell Cotman, Tan-y-Bwlch (Leeds)


Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris ?exhibited 1774 by Richard Wilson 1713-1782

Richard Wilson, Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris (c1774)

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.

Cotman Dolgelly Fitzwilliam

John Sell Cotman, Dolgelly (1804-05) (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

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.

Cotman Barmouth Norwich

John Sell Cotman, Barmouth estuary (1801) (Norwich)


Cotman Barmouth estuary with Cader Idris Yale

John Sell Cotman, Barmouth estuary with Cader Idris, north Wales (nd) (Yale Center for British Art)

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.

Cotman Telford's aqueduct

John Sell Cotman, Telford’s Aqueduct (1806), Ashmolean Museum

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.


John Sell Cotman, Road to Capel Curig (1807) (Victoria and Albert Museum)


Cotman Pont-y-Pair

Paul Sandby Munn, Pont y Pair (engraving)

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.

Cotman Snowdon from Llanberis

John Sell Cotman, Cattle watering from Llanberis Lake (1824)

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.

Cotman Snowdon

John Sell Cotman, Snowdon, north Wales (1809-10) (Norwich)

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.

Cotman Mountain scene in Wales

John Sell Cotman, Mountain scene in Wales (1810) (Norwich)

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:

Landscape with a Large mountain (?Cader Idris) c.1798-9 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

JMW Turner, Landscape with a large mountain (?Cader Idris) (c.1798-9) (Tate Gallery)


Landscape with Cader Idris c.1798-9 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

JMW Turner, Landscape with Cader Idris (c.1798-99) (Tate Gallery)

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.

Cotman Cader Idris oil Norwich

John Sell Cotman, Cader Idris (nd) (Norwich)


Cotman Cader Idris oil Norwich2

John Sell Cotman, Cader Idris (nd) (Norwich)

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.

Cotman Cader Idris NMW

John Sell Cotman, Cader Idris (nd) (National Museum of Wales)


Cotman Cader Idris British Museum

John Sell Cotman, Cader Idris (nd) (British Museum)


John Sell Cotman, Cader Idris (location unknown)

John Sell Cotman, Cader Idris (location unknown)


John Sell Cotman, Mountain landscape with figures (Leeds)

John Sell Cotman, Mountain landscape with figures (1830s) (Leeds)


Cotman Cattle on a mountain, north Wales

John Sell Cotman, Cattle on a mountain (nd) (British Museum)


Cotman Mountain tarn

John Sell Cotman, Mountain tarn (1830-35) (British Museum)


John Sell Cotman, Welsh mountains

John Sell Cotman, Welsh mountains (1930s) (location unknown)

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’, and a second revision in December 2018 to include the National Library of Wales’s ‘Meanturog Church’.

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  1. KEITH BOWEN says:

    The Road to Capel Curig 1807. I have thought that this picture might also have an element taken from the bridge at Llangollen over the River Dee, as the sharp rock face on the right hand side has the distinct characteristics of the carboniferous limestone escarpment of the Eglwseg which overlooks the town, running east and north.

    As Cotman traveled along the Holyhead A5 road, between Corwen and Betws-y-Coed, he would have seen various small bridges. He completed several compositions of small bridges which reflect this area e.g. the bridge off the A5 leading to the village of Llangwm.

    His oil of Cadair Idris, on loan from the Norwich Castle Museum, was for me, the highlight of the recent MOMA exhibition.

    Thank you for your excellent article on Cotman in Wales.

  2. William gibbs says:

    Dear Andrew,

    Perhaps you can help. Coming up next week at a Sotheby’s July 6th sale is a painting by Paul Sandby Munn of Brecon

    Lot299 Brecon Bridge with the castle is in fact of the Watergate bridge at the confluence of the
    HONDDU Qand the Usk.

    In your article you have an itenary for Munn and Cotman visit to Wales in 1801 and I wondered how you thought that this visit to Brecon fits in. You illustrate Cotman’s painting of the Castle Bridge in Brecon and you know I’m sure his wash painted looking downstream now at Yale. Munn and Cotman decided to paint different views but presumably on the same day. Any idea of whden that might be ? I am putting together with Nigel Blackamore (Curator at Brecon) a bid to the Art Fund for funding a bid at the auction

    • Andrew Green says:

      Dear William,

      Apologies for the delay in replying, I’ve been away. Sydney Kitson, who first reconstructed Cotman’s 1800 trip through Wales, says that following the visit to Goodrich (4 July),

      ‘Monnow Bridge and Raglan Castle were visited and sketched, and then Llanthony Abbey. Retracing his steps to Abergavenny, Cotman went next to Brecknock, where he obtained materials for several drawings (No.3). From Brecknock he went by the Roman Road to Llondovery …’ (p.20).

      Cotman was in Aberystwyth by 18 July (dated sketch). So, on Kitson’s reading, he was in Brecon sometime between 4 and 19 July 1800.

      Kitson’s illustration ‘No.3’ (‘monochrome’) shows Brecon bridge with the castle in the right background; he dates it ‘c.1803’. This is the picture now in Yale, who follow Kitson’s date in their catalogue entry. The (later?) version I illustrate may be based loosely on this view.

      Kitson makes no mention of any surviving sketches by Cotman made in Monmouth, Raglan or Brecon on the 1800 trip. I certainly couldn’t find any. Whether he reconstructs this part of the itinerary on the basis of surviving contemporary sketches by Munn, or whether he extrapolated from later images by Cotman of these places, is not clear.

      (Jeremy Yates re-examined the Wye valley part of Cotman’s tour in his unpublished paper, but did not consider the Brecon stage.)

      I hope you had good fortune at the sale. (The Munn painting, by the way, has the castle in the *left* background.)

      Best wishes,


  3. William says:

    Thanks Andrew,

    Yes , we managed to buy the PS Munn for Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery…which by the way now has the go ahead for redevelopment…reopening we hope in 2018. The Art Fund and V and A purchase fund helped.

    Of the Brecon Cotmans I know, the grey wash in Yale is from above the Castle Bridge looking downstream, from exactkly the same spot that Turner chose. There are three bridges over the Honddu; Watergate Bridge close to the river that Munn paints; Castle Bridge that both Turner and Cotman paint, and the Priory Bridge leading to the Cathedral.

    Cotman also paints Castle Bridge from below and this exists ,as far as I know in two versions, one of which was sold at auction a few yeas ago. It would be wonderful to add one of Cotman’s works of Brecon to the Brecknock collection. Perhaps someone reading this owns one and will bequeath it to the Museum.


  4. potenzol says:

    I don’t know if it’s just me or if perhaps everybody else
    experiencing issues with your blog. It looks like some of
    the text on your posts are running off the screen. Can someone else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them too?
    This may be a problem with my web browser because I’ve had this happen previously.
    Thank you

    • Andrew Green says:

      I’ve not come across this problem before (do others have the same experience?). There is a problem with some images not appearing correctly, in some browsers).

  5. Adam Bennett says:

    I purchased (in April 2014) an oil painting (no date and not apparently signed) attributed to Cotman of the Pont y Pair bridge that is very similar to the print you illustrate based on Munn’s drawing (in your Cotman article of 14/8/2014). I am not completely sure why it was so attributed, being an oil rather than watercolour and so similar to Munn’s work. The relevant link (and info) is:

    Do you have any opinions on this oil painting?

    • Andrew Green says:

      Many thanks for this, Adam, and congratulations on acquiring the picture. I agree that your painting has much in common with the Munn print, and I would certainly hesitate to say that it was by Cotman. Cotman did use oils, but not, apparently, before October 1806 (though of course he regularly returned to scenes from his Welsh tours in later years). But I don’t know enough about Munn’s style to say your painting must be by him.

      • Adam Bennett says:

        Interesting that you say Cotman did not use oils before October 1806. Cotman’s watercolour of the bridge that you also display was done (I understand) in 1807, and the Middiman print of Munn’s drawing of the same was also published in 1807. Is it possible that Cotman might have been inspired by the print, including to experiment with oils? I am not aware that Munn painted any oils himself.

  6. Jeremy Yates says:

    I too congratulate Mr Bennett on his acquisition of the ‘Cotman’ oil of Pont-y-Pair. I understand that the work was in the Halifax collection before appearing at auction in 2014 – and that the collection contained some fine Cotman works. I am currently working (still) on the Welsh tours of JSC and this work is linked closely with Munn’s on-the-spot sketch (at Aberystwyth), his watercolour, and the later prints by him of this subject – and of course with the Cotman watercolour – and that some of the dates seem to converge at about 1807 or after. Perhaps Adam would like to contact me and I could update him on my current thoughts?

    • Adam Bennett says:


      I only just discovered your post today (having been prompted by a later notification). I would be very interested to know of your “current thoughts” on the Pont-y-Pair oil. Not sure how to contact you, except via this comment string …

      Adam Bennett

      • Jeremy Yates says:

        Apologies – I too have only just looked at this site again and seen Adam Bennett’s wish to contact me – without giving my email or phone details here I can only suggest that Adam goes to my Facebook page and private messages me – or contacts me via the Royal Cambrian Academy at Conwy.

  7. Andrew MItchell says:

    Many thanks for this interesting piece. I am currently looking at improving the Wikipedia article on Cotman, and have included this page in the ‘Further Reading’ section.


  8. Jeremy Yates says:

    Sorry – I forgot to note Andrew, that the NLW Maentwrog interior is regretfully not by Cotman…the Tate ‘Carnarvon’ as you probably know is a Chepstow subject…

    I have progressed my Cotman study – it seems to have grown like Topsy – and certainly have considered Brecon material.

    Please feel free to forward my email address to Adam Bennett – whose email you presumably have,

    With thanks Jeremy

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