John Sell Cotman : Lost in Landscape by Timothy Wilcox

John Sell Cotman: Lost in Landscape by Timothy Wilcox

This lecture was substituted for the published one in the Lecture programme on Cezanne. It provides a taster for TASNF’s visit to Norfolk, in September.

Timothy opened the lecture with a slide of  Winsor and Newton Paints, who have a Cotman selection. Although not a well-known watercolourist, his name lives on.

John Sell Cotman established himself in Norfolk. He was not well known during his lifetime but came to prominence in the 1920s. His techniques were used in books on learning how to paint with watercolours.

John painted marine landscapes, portrayed architecture and was an etcher of over 400 prints but this lecture focused only on his landscapes.

John was born in Norwich (1782 – 1842) and went to the local grammar school where his artistic ability was noted. He moved up to London in 1790s, to paint and was influenced by artists such as Girtin and Turner.

Girtin: The White House at Chelsea (1800)

Girtin died in 1802 and Cotman was keen to fill the resulting void. In the painting below he used the light water as a contrast to the dark rock emulating Girtin’s technique. He joined their sketching club and travelled to Wales and Surrey. His drawing expeditions took him to Yorkshire where he stayed with Cholmeleys between 1803-5.

Cotman: Greta Bridge (1807)

He exhibited some of his Welsh paintings at the Royal Academy, from 1801 onwards. Watercolours were not hung there to full advantage and the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour was formed. Their first exhibition was held in 1805. Cotman submitted work but it was not included, one reason given was that the work was ‘unfinished’. Interestingly,  many paintings displayed that year, were familiar Welsh landscapes, using light and shade.

Cotman ‘threw in the towel ‘ and returned to Norwich after five years in London. He joined the Norwich Society of Artists. In 1806, he exhibited 200 watercolours in Norwich, to generate pupils. He would teach them how to paint out of doors. The Romanticism movement was becoming established, promoting a return to nature, and rebelling against growing industrialisation. He became President of the Society in 1811.

Cotman: View of Mousehold Heath (1810)

He achieved local notoriety and married a local farmer’s daughter. In 1812, he accepted an offer by local wealthy banker Dawson Turner, in Great Yarmouth, to become his artist in residence; a drawing master for his six children. During this time, he developed his finest marine pieces. Dawson’s interests moved from botany to antiquities in 1820, and the two men travelled to Normandy and produced a book ‘Architectural Antiquities of Normandy’ (1822), Cotman provided the etchings.

Cotman returned to watercolours on a walking tour in 1820. His work became more colourful. He returned to Norwich, four years later, with his family including six children. He bought a large house opposite the cathedral. He enjoyed ‘cutting a dash’ but money was a constant concern. He showed his work from 1823 to 1825 at the Norwich Society of Artists exhibitions.  In 1835, much to his delight, he was invited to be an Associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours and exhibited there until 1839.

Money continued to be a worry and he was invited to teach at Kings College School (1834) and the family moved to London. Cotman was constantly experimenting on his compositional techniques, for example, he introduced rice paste to his paints, to increase texture.

He battled with depression in his later years. In 1841, Cotman died, having done a last tour of Norfolk visiting his favourite haunts.

Cotman: A Summer’s Day  (Norfolk Broads)

In 1922, his works were exhibited at the National Gallery. The renowned Railway Posters plagiarised his work or as they said at the time were ‘paying homage’. John Piper produced an article about his drawings, he was a great fan.

If you wish to investigate his watercolour landscapes further, more examples of his work can be found at the Norwich and British Museums.