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 escort, the writing of poems about him, or the fuss made about Tippo, his dog, a full-time nuisance.
If Cotman in the North sounds like a Jane Austen novel come to life, it also presents a fresh look at a particular moment when three different if related endeavors—the art of watercolor; a concern for the undiscovered beauties of the English landscape and for the country’s historical past; and a belief that learning how to draw ought to be a necessary part of a person’s education—were at or near their zenith. In a stretch of time from the late eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth centuries, watercolor was used by English artists with a freedom, and a sense that the medium was capable of expressing one’s most personal feelings, that have hardly existed to the same degree anywhere else. In the pencil drawings and watercolors Cotman made around Brandsby, and even more in those made in the environs of Rokeby Hall, a house further north where he also stayed, we follow an artist opening up new expressive terrain as he goes from work to work, and doing so seemingly with a whole segment of society almost literally joining him on his quest. A description by Teresa of a visit to Castle Eden Dene, a wooded gorge in Durham, reads like the program note to any of a number of English landscapes of the time.
The underlying irony of Cotman’s drawing and painting with such ease and encouragement on these trips, however, is that his life story all told is one of the more painfully thwarted in the art of his time. David Hill barely mentions the life Cotman, who died in 1842, at sixty, went on to lead, and suggests, in a provocative and debatable conclusion, that the artist essentially achieved what he wanted. This doesn’t square with Cotman’s own recorded feelings. In later years, flattened by a lifelong lack of serious recognition and overwhelmed by depressions that could immobilize him for months, he called his time at Brandsby the “happiest and blithesomest hours of my life”; and for readers who come to Hill’s study with some familiarity with the artist, its moment-by-moment account of his days in the region will have as much the note of an all-too-brief love affair as that of a brilliant young artist’s first flexing of his muscles.
John Sell Cotman is, in any event, a difficult figure to sum up (and a difficult one for Americans even to see, since his foremost works are in the British Museum, the Norwich Castle Museum, and other public galleries in his homeland). His career, viewed from any distance, was one of fits and starts and seeming detours, and his themes are the opposite of immediately graspable. While some of his finest and best-known works are landscapes, he can’t be called, like Constable or Turner or so many of his other English contemporaries, a landscapist. He wasn’t, anyway, a man who drew strength from nature’s dynamism or its purity. His real concerns were the rhythms and balances he saw about him, an elusive theme which led him increasingly to paint and draw buildings. Yet even here he is slippery, because he comes across less like a topographer or an appreciator of architectural styles than a kind of portraitist of the moods and surfaces of structures.
Cotman is known primarily for the almost mind-boggling technical facility he brought to the art of watercolor, to the extent that the Winsor & Newton company’s various watercolor products carry a trademarked “Cotman” label. But the artist’s far less known oils, and to a slightly lesser extent his pencil drawings and etchings, often exist on the same level of uncanny harmony and order. In a great Cotman of any kind, the relationship of the forms in the work, the play of light tones and dark ones, and the wonderfully porous, terrycloth-like, breathing surface textures he achieves all appear to have come together for the moment in perfect alignment—and, except at times in his late work, they don’t leave an aftertaste of showy virtuosity. Yet what probably most caught viewers when, in the 1890s, some fifty years after his death, Cotman finally began attracting an audience was the modern-seeming flatness of his images.
In a watercolor such as his often reproduced 1805 Greta Bridge(see illustration on page 16), everything in the scene, whether the huge, dark rocks in the river, the pale water itself, the stone bridge in the distance, the masses of trees, the pure white clouds, or the surrounding blue sky, appears to sit with equal flatness right on the picture’s surface. Each entity seems to exist independently, defined by an outline more felt than seen, making the work, like so many Cotmans, resemble an assemblage of silhouettes or stencils, or a miniature oriental screen. Even when the artist’s point of view is so close to his subject that we can barely tell at first what we are seeing, as in, say, the 1805 Banks of the Greta near Rokeby, which shows a pileup of earth and leaves, his image seems as if it is clinging fast to the picture’s surface. Looking at this flattened mass of leaves, a viewer can feel that Cotman has inadvertently invented camouflage.
Yet his pictures also include a surprising amount of tiny, realistic detailing. Cotman’s realism is particularly extraordinary in his watercolors, which, quite differently from how many artists handle the medium—that is, emphasizing its washiness, vaporousness, or speed—he treats like oil painting, crafting each detail with the touch of what must have been an unimaginably small brush. In Crambe Beck Bridge, still another superb work from his 1805 visit to Yorkshire (and formerly called Chirk Aqueduct; see illustration on page 14), he pulls our eyes inward, through the bridge’s big, clear, salmony-tan arches, to discover in the distance swaying, leafless saplings and delicate wood fences—minuscule elements rendered with such care as to give the sensation that we look in at a taut, measurable, just-focused world. Even works that seem blurry or indecipherable at first, such as Banks of the Greta, produce, as our eyes catch all the details in the picture, a sense of a precisely defined space.
Cotman’s feeling for architecture has something of the same contradictory, two-sided character. In early masterpieces such as Greta Bridge or Crambe Beck Bridge, he seems to admire structures for their sheer gracefulness. An artist whose foremost subject was perhaps art itself, he makes it seem as if, framed by the arches of these bridges, there exist additional, self-contained little paintings. Increasingly, though, his subjects were ruins of churches or castles, tumbledown shacks in villages or by the sea, or simply aspects of buildings, often seen when no one was around. We look at ruination or disuse, and often see buildings whose skins, so to speak, have erupted in boils or flaked off, to reveal innards of jumbled mortar, bricks, and wood beams. Yet his mood is never grim. The world of his pictures almost always radiates an assured clarity and crispness. In love with textures and abstract designs for their own sake, he renders even beams one by one.
Whether Cotman’s work was too advanced for his time or whether he sabotaged his best interests by the highly indirect and circuitous way he handled his career is merely another of the ambiguities surrounding his name. Without inherited funds, like Constable, and far from the charging, egoistic art entrepreneur (and bachelor) Turner was in part, Cotman spent much of his life in a state of anxiety about money. With apparently zero business sense, he could get frayed even when circumstances didn’t warrant it. Through the Cholmeleys, in the months he spent in Yorkshire, he made numerous excellent connections with families wealthy enough to commission work from him; but no lasting patronage ever came of them. Returning to London in the autumn of 1805, he was faced with the costly life of a young artist on the make in the capital with no backing; and within months he beat a retreat to his significantly less expensive hometown of Norwich, in Norfolk.
For some commentators, the move was professional suicide, and he compounded it six years later when, now married to Ann Miles, whose father was a farmer in the region, and on the way to being the father of four boys and a girl, he moved to nearby Yarmouth. This was an ultimate backwater where, according to Sydney Kitson, the painter’s deeply sympathetic but frequently exasperated biographer, local life was “too shallow to drown in.” Yarmouth meant considerable work as in-house drawing master to the family of one Dawson Turner, a banker, lay botanist, and antiquarian under whose undoubtedly well-meaning but also impersonal and unbending financial and artistic guidance Cotman’s story, its connection with Jane Austen’s realm now largely a memory, increasingly took on the grueling tension of a Harold Pinter play.
Prompted in good part by Dawson Turner, Cotman threw himself into the making of prints on antiquarian themes. In the course of his labors, he seems to have visited every church in Norfolk; and three physically demanding trips to Normandy gave the non-French-speaking painter French subjects as well. His efforts resulted in portfolios of prints, paid for by subscribers—on the face of it not a bad idea, as other artists, including the protean Turner, sought to make money the same way. Many lively and exquisite etchings and drawings came about as a result of Cotman’s projects, among them powerfully odd views of the mountainous and treeless area around Domfront. To make these publications, however, he gave up watercolor and oil painting for a decade, and the financial returns, at the end, were barely remunerative.
By 1823, Cotman was finally able to cut loose from Dawson Turner. He returned to Norwich, still a drawing master for hire, and with his children increasingly helping out in the business. He seems to have hoped to get back to his more personal work in watercolor and oil. But Cotman’s emotional volatility, about which he had been cautioned by the Cholmeleys when he was in his early twenties, could now get the better of him. Periods of exuberance were followed by depressions, when he was incapable of movement or talk, let alone work. One reads of this whole year or that whole year going by without anything being made. His bleak times blanketed the family, to the extent that many of his children, by early adulthood, showed signs of mental instability. In his fifties, the situation was such that Cotman could write to a correspondent, “two of my sons have become insane.”
When, in 1834, a modicum of recognition came, and Cotman was asked to be the drawing master at a new school called King’s College, in London, the artist was thrilled. He was finally able to afford living there, and he worked hard at the job for the remaining eight years of his life. But he was essentially just making drawings for his students to copy, as he had done for Dawson Turner’s daughters, and his new students were no more than boys. Cotman’s teaching position had no bearing on the fact that he had never made a name for himself in the London art world. His death, as he probably expected would be the case, was met without a single obituary notice anywhere.
Over the years, Cotman the artist and the person has been written about with considerable perception, particularly by Kitson, Miklos Rajnai, and David Thompson (yet there is still no volume of good reproductions of his pictures in all the mediums he tackled). In writing of Cotman’s breakthrough days in Yorkshire and Durham, David Hill has managed, however, to make us see even further into the painter’s work, though a reader will not have an easy time following Hill’s account. He has looked at the mass of material concerning Cotman’s time in the Cholmeley family’s orbit as the art historian he is and also as a social historian, an art critic, a travel guide, a bit of a novelist, and a photographer, presenting shots of Cotman’s actual sites, which are momentarily fascinating. Hill’s range of approaches befits his many-sided subject. But he has piled on, in truth, too much information. His text comes across like a compendium of data now ready to be shaped into a reading experience, a state of affairs magnified by paragraphs of bizarre length and by typos and factual mistakes and punctuation and typesetting boo-boos of such number and ugliness as to merit some sort of award.
Much that is lovely, engaging, and astute fortunately survives the rough passage. Hill has convincingly come up with new dates for many pictures, and he has newly determined, in some cases, what Cotman’s very subject was. We learn what the water is like in the Greta in August, when Cotman swam in it daily (not warm), and Hill neatly captures his subject’s distinctively exploratory approach when he writes that while a fellow artist, at a site, “reduces the subject to art, Cotman is looking, questioning, and discovers.” Thankfully, Hill tells us when pictures don’t jell, and, sweetly in sync with Cotman’s own spirited prose at times, he can write of a work he has seen in an old catalog, “‘My dog,’ and it would be nice to identify that particular item!”
Hill’s chief contribution is that he emphasizes what has been lost sight of in many of the accounts of Cotman: how “outlandish” and “obscure,” meaning how relatively indirect and unimportant, even indecipherable, were his choices of what to paint. With his knowledge of the terrain of northeast England, Hill can tell us how the artist chose sites that no one had been interested in before or would be after, and, too, how Cotman, in the vicinity of a show-stopping subject, might at that juncture turn around and study some weeds. Moreover, Hill attempts to comprehend the particular tensions Cotman sets up in his repeated images of bridges and archways, structures he presents (although Hill doesn’t put it in exactly these terms) as both invitations to escape where we are and as gateways to disappointment.
Hill’s findings make Cotman’s inward and psychological approach to reality clearer than it has ever seemed. And so there is some validity to Hill’s parting image of the artist in his later days. It is logical that an artist who was more interested in bridges, weeds, or piles of leaves than the outwardly heroic or awe-inspiring material that galvanized so many of his contemporaries would want to settle down in the provinces for the rest of his life where, as Hill says, he “seems to have lived well, immersed in his work and in his delight in his family.” Hill is saying that, seeking the “obscure” in his art, Cotman came to live in obscurity as well. He must have got what he wanted. It is a bracingly unsentimental argument, and surely it contains a core of psychological truth.
Yet this argument ignores not only the clear mental distress Cotman continually suffered but his belief, stated in a letter (which Hill does not quote), that an artist who is not ambitious is an “anomaly.” Bypassed, too, is Cotman’s realization, put down in another unquoted letter, with his own added emphasis, that, in his forties, he was “but a mere drawing master—the very thing I dreaded most on setting out in life.” What Hill’s verdict also fails to take into account is the career of an oil painter that barely happened—a genuine loss considering how the few oils Cotman left, dreamy and delicate pictures of river and shore life and of trees, have a feeling for the density of oil and for composition in itself that gives them a place apart in all English painting.
In the end, of course, how Cotman’s life after he left Brandsby in 1805 is characterized is less important than the pleasure and stimulation his work continues to give. In this, it is fitting that Teresa Cholmeley, whose letters to or about the artist indicate that she saw him as a second son, even a soul mate, has the last word. Although Cotman and Francis Jr. remained friends for a long time after Cotman left Yorkshire, Francis Sr. and then Teresa died not many years thereafter. She remained very much in touch with him in those few years, however, and when he gave up London for Norwich in 1806 she wrote him a long, cautionary letter in which she all too accurately touched on many of the dilemmas he would face navigating his life and career. She abruptly concluded, though, “Whether prosperous or unlucky signifies nothing in my regard for you”—exactly what anyone who has fallen under the spell of a Cotman will understand.