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.

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 T
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, P
aul 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
(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. M
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
He 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).

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