John Sell Cotman, AOWS (1782-1842) Though working in oils and as an etcher, John Sell Cotman is best remembered as a watercolourist of great originality, who rivalled the achievement of J M W Turner and remains an inspiration to artists today. In combining strong draughtsmanship and a confident application of flat washes, he managed to ‘translate the patterns of nature into exquisite two dimensional designs’ (Andrew W Moore, in Jane Turner 1996, vol 8 p 27). John Sell Cotman was born in the parish of St Mary Coslany, Norwich on 16 May 1782, the son of a hairdresser, who later became a haberdasher. At the age of eleven, he gained a free place at Norwich Grammar School.
In 1798, Cotman moved to London, where he worked as an assistant to printseller and publisher, Rudolph Ackermann. In the following year, he left Ackermann’s service and received the patronage of Dr Thomas Monro, so gaining the same opportunity as J M W Turner and Thomas Girtin to study and copy examples from a significant collection of English watercolours.
While living at 28 Gerrard Street, Soho, in 1800, Cotman exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts for the first time and, in the same year, was awarded a large silver palette by the Society of Arts for his drawing of a mill. During this period, he supported himself by selling his drawings to local print-sellers, one of which – Peter Norton – sent him to Bristol with an introduction to his brother, a bookseller.
This experience led Cotman to make the first of the series of sketching tours – to Wales in summer 1800 – that had such a dramatic effect on his development. While in Conway, he may have worked alongside Girtin. Certainly, by the following year, he had become a member of ‘The Brothers’, the sketching society that Girtin had founded, and was its President in 1802. Girtin’s influence was strong at this time.
Between 1802 and 1804, Cotman lodged with the Munn brothers, above their print shop at 107 New Bond Street. In 1802, Paul Sandby Munn accompanied him on his second tour of Wales, during which they travelled light and worked mainly in pencil. Cotman’s resulting watercolours, produced subsequently, displayed a new confidence of design and handling, a confidence that the artist was able to exploit further in responding to new experiences. A year later, Cotman and Munn went travelling again – to Yorkshire, where they were taken up by the Cholmeley family of Brandsby Hall. Yorkshire proved as important to Cotman as to Girtin and Turner, so that he returned to the county in both 1804 and 1805 (by which time he was living at 20 Woodstock Street, off Bond Street).
On the last trip, while staying on the River Greta – at Rokeby Park and then Greta Bridge – Cotman produced a series of watercolours that have later been described as ‘the most perfect examples of pure water-colour ever made in Europe’ (Binyon 1931, p 132). Yet at the time, his contemporaries failed to recognise his distinction. This failure was epitomised, in 1806, by the decision taken by the recently formed Society of Painters in Water Colours not to elect him to its membership. So, having exhibited at the Royal Academy for one last time, he left his London address (71 Charlotte Street) and returned to Norwich before the end of the year.
Cotman seems to have been determined to establish himself as an artistic force in his native city. He set up a ‘School of Drawing and Design’ at his home at Luckett’s Court, Wymer Street, St Andrew’s, and advertised its foundation by holding a large retrospective exhibition. He also broadened his ambitions, experimenting with oils and painting portraits. Indeed, a year after he first exhibited with the Norwich Society of Artists in 1807, he described himself in its catalogues as a portrait painter. At the same time, he remained at heart a landscape watercolourist, using pure, often bright washes to render his environment in simplified, even abstracted, forms. Yet, despite these manifold activities, the local public was slow to purchase his work, and at a time when he needed financial security; in 1809, he married the daughter of a tenant farmer from Fellbrigg.
Undeterred, Cotman expanded his enterprises as an educator, in 1810, by establishing a Circulating Library of drawings that pupils could borrow to copy. At the same time, he was elected Vice-President (1810) and then President (1811) of the Norwich Society of Artists, and also exhibited in London, with the Associated Artists in Water Colours and at the British Institution.
In 1812, Cotman accepted the invitation of Dawson Turner – banker, botanist and antiquary – to move to Great Yarmouth, and settled at what is now 83-84 Southdown Road. He acted as the drawing master to Turner’s family, as well as contributing etched illustrations to Turner’s antiquarian projects. Having established himself as a printmaker with his Miscellaneous Etchings of Architectural Antiquities in Yorkshire (1812), Cotman produced over 600 etched plates for the six volumes of Architectural Antiquities in Norfolk, for which Turner provided the commentaries (1812-18).
Dawson Turner probably instigated, and certainly facilitated, Cotman’s three tours of Normandy, in 1817, 1819 and 1820. During his time there he worked hard, making many, often precise drawings in preparation for the two-volume Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, again with commentaries by Turner. On the appearance of these volumes in 1822, their ninety-seven etchings would bring Cotman wide acclaim.
In 1823, Cotman returned to Norwich and took a house in St Martinat-Palace Plain. In the following year, he set up a School for Drawing in his home, and began to capitalise on his new-found success, exhibiting in London and organising a large sale of his drawings at Christie’s. In 1825, he was finally elected an associate of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, without having to submit drawings for approval, and showed work at its exhibitions for the first time (continuing to do so until 1839). Despite, or perhaps because of, his industry, he was prone to suffer from depression, and had a particularly serious bout in 1826.
At the opening of the 1830s, Cotman was again elected Vice-President (1831) and then President (1833) of the Norwich Society of Artists, under its new name of the Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts. However, the society was disbanded later that year, during a meeting at his house and, in 1834, Cotman accepted the position of drawing master at King’s College School, London. He organised a sale of his large collection at his house, with the aid of the auctioneer, Spelman, on 10-12 September, and moved to 42 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, which remained his home for the rest of his life. Miles Edmund Cotman, his eldest son, acted as his assistant at the school, while his pupils included William and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (from 1837) and William Burges (from 1839). His last publications, of 1838, were the Liber Studiorum and the retrospective collection, Specimens of Architectural Remains in Various Counties in England, but Especially in Norfolk.
Cotman died at home in London on 24 July 1842, and his collection was sold through four auctions: two at Christie’s in 1843, and two in Norwich in the 1860s.
Of his five children, three became artists: Miles Edmund Cotman, Ann Cotman and John Joseph Cotman, the last continuing the family drawing practice in Norwich.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, The Courtauld Gallery, Tate and the V&A; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), Leeds Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery and Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery; and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston).