The Life of John Sell Cotman
Written to coincide with two related exhibitions held last year in England, Cotman in the North is a very welcome, if not entirely first-rate, addition to the slowly growing body of writing on one of the most inventive and accomplished of all English artists. David Hill’s study describes a number of months during the summers and autumns of 1803, 1804, and 1805 when John Sell Cotman, then in his early twenties and already noticed in London as one of the bright hopes of English watercolor art, went on sketching tours to Yorkshire and Durham, in the northeast corner of the country. Carrying a letter of introduction to Francis and Teresa Ann Cholmeley, of Brandsby Hall, a house near York, the young artist was received initially as a visiting sketcher, and was soon giving various Cholmeleys (and their guests) drawing lessons, being introduced to other families in the region, and going off on excursions to one site or social function after another with this or that member of the household. By the time he left Yorkshire for good, in November 1805, he was thought about as a true member of the family.
With its generous use of the many surviving letters of the principals involved, and full of exact details concerning everyone’s comings and goings, as well as descriptions of where Cotman was when he made this or that picture, Hill’s account often resembles a home-movie-like peek at a moment that would have furnished material for a novel of the time. When the young artist arrived at Brandsby, he was armed with little more than his talent—which happened to be phenomenal—his apparently good manners, and, it would appear, an ability to hold his own in what turned out to be heady company. Spearheaded by Teresa Cholmeley, whose robust, caring, witty, and insightful voice is one of the book’s treats, the Yorkshire family (which maintained a home in London in the winter months) was fully on top of the social, political, literary, and artistic issues of the day. They were as desirous of seeing the medieval ruins and the sometimes thrillingly hard to reach natural wonders of the area as was Cotman. Even matters of amusement demanded full attention, as when Teresa wryly noted about one of her daughters’ poetic efforts, “She calls it ‘Spartan Fortitude’ because there is not an atom of Sparta or fortitude in the whole plan.”
The Cholmeleys had five children, the eldest of whom, Francis Jr., was at the time finishing college and frequently off traveling. His four teenage sisters, in various stages of hopeful waiting for the right man, set to work on their visiting teacher. As the son of a small tradesman in Norwich (Cotman’s father had been a hairdresser before becoming a haberdasher), the young artist was never going to be a feasible match for any of them; but this didn’t stop the endless flirting, the renaming of him Cotty, the use of him as an …