Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1805)British Museum
Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1805)
British Museum

I try to visit my children, who live in London, every couple of months and take the opportunity to visit new art exhibition at one of the many city galleries.  As they are all away on extended breaks in far-off lands I will not be heading south until the end of January and this will sadly mean I will miss the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, Cotman in Normandy which is an exhibition of works by the watercolourist, John Sell Cotman, which ends on January 13th.  For most of the twentieth century, Cotman was the most widely admired English watercolourist, surpassing even Turner in popularity.

John Sell Cotman was a marine and landscape painter, mainly in watercolour, who was born in Norwich in 1782.  He was the eldest of ten children.  His father, Edmund Cotman, formerly a barber but latterly a draper by trade, had married Ann Sell.   He 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 his family business.  However during his time at school John Cotman had developed a love of art and being determined that he would not spend his working life behind a shop counter, at the age of 16, left home and went to London to study art.

Whilst in London he managed to earn a living by colouring aquatints for Anglo-German lithographer and publisher, Rudolph Ackerman, who 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. It was whilst he was in London that he also met Doctor Thomas Monro, who was an avid art collector.   He was Principal Physician of the Bethlem Royal Hospital and one-time 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.  He 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.

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. 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.   The following year, 1801, John Cotman joined the Brothers, a sketching society, founded by Thomas Girtin, for both professional artists and talented amateurs. During the next two summers he spent much of his time travelling around Wales, sketching scenes many of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801 and 1802.

For the next three summers John Cotman spent time at Brandsby Hall in North Yorkshire, which was the home of Francis Cholmeley, an avid art collector and a patron of Cotman.  During his stay at the Hall, Cotman acted as the drawing tutor to the Cholomeley family.  Whilst there he also met the politician and art collector, Walter Ramsden Hawkesworth Fawkes, whose stately home was Farnley Hall and who was a very close friend of the artist, J.M.W. Turner who often stayed at Farnley Hall.

The success he had hoped for in London never materialised and in 1806 Cotman returned to his hometown of Norwich and earned his living as an art tutor.  On returning home he also joined the Norwich Society an art society formed the previous year by the Norfolk landscape painter John Crome.  This society met fortnightly, held artistic discussions and organised exhibitions of their work.  John Cotman became the vice president and he and Crome were the leading lights of the society.  The ethos of the Society was laid down 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 to Greater Perfection in these Arts…”

The artistic styles of Crome and Cotman were different and the Society members were, to some extent, divided into those who followed Crome’s realist manner, and those working in the more free style of Cotman, who was not above painting pictures of places he had not personally visited, working from other artists’ sketches.  The subjects of the Norwich School painters were typically landscapes, coasts and marine scenes from around Norwich and Norfolk.  John Cotman became president of the Norwich Society of Artists in 1811.

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 issued the first of his sets of etchings 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.   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.   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.

In 1824, for business reasons he moved back to Norwich.  Cotman took up painting again with renewed energy, in watercolour and in oil; he exhibited more frequently in the city and also in London. In January 1834, through the good auspices of J.M.W.Turner, he 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 moved home 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.  His last visit to his homeland of Norfolk was in the autumn of 1841, just nine months before his death in London in July 1842.

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…”

Preliminary sketch of Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman
Preliminary sketch of Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is a watercolour entitled Greta Bridge (22cms x 33cms), which Cotman completed in 1805 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 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 31 July 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 bridgeof the same design.  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

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1810)Norwich Castle Museum
Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1810)
Norwich Castle Museum

The foreground of the painting is dominated by its rocky intrusions. In the background, above the bridge we see in the 1805 version, a forest of trees and  large white clouds and yet in the 1810 version a mountain ridge, which, in reality, does not actually exist, has substituted the individual clouds. So why did he make this fundamental change and add the idealised rocky structure?  It is believed that Cotman decided to add the mountain ridge in the later watercolour so as to strengthen the sense of perspective and by so doing have the viewers eye drawn through the landscape, starting from the rocks in the foreground, through the arch of the bridge to the trees in the middle ground as far as the mountain ridge and the sky in the background.

Although John Sell Cotman and Turner were strongly influenced by the work of Thomas Girtin, Cotman’s landscape style in comparison to Turner’s was different.  Cotman’s landscapes were not as detailed as either Girtin’s or Turner’s.  In his landscapes, Turner’s was more precise with the details.  Many believed his “every-single-branch-and-bud” precision was somewhat overwhelming, and said that the result was that the viewer stared at the same copse for too long.   In contrast, Cotman’s landscapes could be taken in with just a single glance.  In today’s work one can see the beauty of the watercolour despite the lack of minute detail.  In these watercolours, Cotman strived to capture the feeling and atmosphere of a place through the use of pattern and abstract shapes. Look how he has painted the boulders, which we see in the river.  They are smooth, rounded shapes sprinkled with spots of colour.  Cotman’s technique of using colour washes has accentuated the smooth roundness of the landscape.  His trees are rounded and block-like, in varying shades of green and brown and in the 1810 version the mountain ridge in the background is softly shaped.

This watercolour is a prime example of his balanced and sensitive technique which he used in his landscape work.   In this work he has used very muted colours for his high cloudy sky, which echo the colour of the river surface.  Below the dark clouds we see a suggestion of better weather to come with a hint of blue sky and thick white clouds.  The watercolour is built up in distinct patches of restrained colour, held in a precise pattern of tone and line, which were the hallmarks of Cotman’s inimitable style. The presence of the sun and the large trees around the flowing river causes crisp shadows on the building, bridge and water surface.

I love this watercolour and would love to visit Norwich were a number of his works are housed.  It would also be good to visit the Greta River area and take in the landscape, which inspired this talented artist.

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.

3 thoughts on “Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman”

  1. Thanks for writing about this artist. I’m just thinking of going to see his exhibition at the Leeds Art Gallery. From your writing, it looks like it’s worth going.

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