John Sell Cotman – part 1

John Sell Cotman by John Varley 1810
John Sell Cotman (1782 – 1842) was born in Norwich, England in 1782, the eldest son of a prosperous silk merchant and lace dealer. His father intended him to go into the family business but instead, intent on a career in art, he moved to London in 1797-8. He came under the patronage of Dr. Thomas Monro, physician to Bridewell and the Bethlehem Hospital, whose house in Adelphi Terrace was a studio and a meeting place for artists. There Cotman he met J. M. W. Turner, Peter de Wint and Thomas Girtin who became an influential figure in his artistic development. He joined a sketching club started by Girtin, and went on drawing expeditions to Wales and Surrey.

In 1800 aged 18, Cotman exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time, showing five scenes of Surrey and one of Harlech Castle. In 1800 he was also awarded an honorary palette by the Society of Arts. He continued to exhibit at the academy until 1806, and went on several extended drawing trips through England and Wales.

In 1806 he returned to live in Norwich and joined the "Norwich Society of Artists”, exhibiting 20 works, including six portraits, at the society's exhibition in 1807, and 67 works including some oils, in 1808. In 1811 he became president of the society.

In 1809, Cotman married Ann Mills and they had five children. His main living came from teaching art and one of his students, the local antiquary Dawson Turner, became a good friend, introducing him to many pupils and collaborating on one of his books. As part of his teaching Cotman operated a kind of subscription library of watercolours, which his pupils took home to copy. Many of his works bear numbers related to this scheme.

In 1811 his first set of etchings was published; all but one of the subjects were architectural, mostly buildings in Yorkshire. He followed this with a set of 60 etchings of ancient buildings in Norfolk, published in ten parts between 1812 and 1818. In 1817 he visited Normandy with Dawson Turner, making drawings of buildings, and went there again in 1818 and 1829. Two years later he published a set of 100 etchings based on sketches he made there.

After these visits the character of his paintings changed, the later ones being brighter in colour.

From 1812 to 1823, Cotman lived on the coast at Great Yarmouth where he studied shipping and mastered the form of waves. Some of his finest marine pieces date from this time. He returned to Norwich in 1824, hoping to improve his financial position, and moved into a large house in St Martin's Plain, opposite the Bishop's Palace, where he built up a collection of prints, books, armour and many models of ships to aid his compositions. He showed work from 1823 to 1825 at the Norwich Society of Artists' annual exhibitions.

In 1825, Cotman became an Associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours and was a frequent exhibitor until 1839. However he was driven to despair by his constant financial struggles.

In January 1834 Cotman was appointed Master of Landscape Drawing at King's College School in London, partly on the recommendation of J M W Turner. In 1836, his son, Miles Edmund was appointed to assist him. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of his pupils. In 1836, he became an honorary member of the Institute of British Architects. In 1838, all of his etchings were published by Henry George Bohn including "Liber studiorum".

Cotman died in July 1842, and was buried in the cemetery at St. John's Wood Chapel.

John Sell Cotman's grave in St. John's Wood, London photo © Poul Webb
All his works and collection of prints and books were sold by auction at Christie's Auction House, realising just over £525 - a relatively paltry sum.
His sons, Miles Edmund Cotman and John Joseph Cotman, became painters of note. Cotman's name is used as a trademark by Winsor & Newton for a range of artist's watercolour materials.

Published works by John Sell Cotman:

Etchings of Ancient Buildings in England (1811)
Specimens of Norman and Gothic Architecture in the County of Norfolk (1817)
Excursions in the Count of Norfolk (1818)
Sepulchral Brasses in Norfolk (1819)
Architectural Antiquities of Normandy (1822  

    This part 1 of a 6-part post on the works of John Sell Cotman:

    1796-1806 Aberystwyth Castle watercolour 30.8 x 52.1 cm

    1800 Houses at Epsom graphite and watercolour 22.6 x 16.9 cm

    1800 Carnarvon graphite, watercolour and gum arabic

    c1800 Loch Ranza Castle, Isle of Arran, Scotland graphite and wash 27 x 20 cm

    c1800 Fantastic Figures Seated on a Mound graphite and watercolour 20.6 x 14.3 cm

    1800-02 Ruins and Houses, North Wales watercolour 25.1 x 35.6 cm

    c1800-02 Harlech Castle watercolour 26.7 x 42.9 cm

    1800-10 Consett Iron Works, Durham oil on canvas 35.7 x 50.5 cm

    1800-10 In Rokeby Park graphite and watercolour 32.7 x 22.9 cm

    1801 Llangollen graphite and watercolour 18.8 x 28.8 cm

    1801 Llanthony Abbey watercolour 43.8 x 33 cm

    c1802 Cader Idris from the Mawddach Estuary above Barmouth graphite and wash 13.3 x 22.5 cm

    1803 Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire graphite and watercolour 30.3 x 21 cm

    1803 Doorway of the Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey graphite and watercolour 31.9 x 25.5 cm

    1803 Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire watercolour

    1803 Rievaulx Abbey graphite on paper 37.1 x 27 cm

    c1803 Bolton Priory, Yorkshire graphite and wash 22.2 x 41.9 cm

    c1803 Brecon Bridge, Yorkshire graphite and wash 21.6 x 40.3 cm

    c1803 East End of Howden Church, Yorkshire graphite and wash 39.1 x 29.8 cm

    c1803 Mountainous Landscape with a Blasted Tree graphite and watercolour 29.6 x 44.7 cm

    c1804 Crowland Abbey watercolour 21.6 x 15.9 cm

    1804 Kirkthorpe, Yorkshire watercolour

    c1804 Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk graphite and watercolour 26 x 36.2 cm

    c1804 Croyland Abbey, Lincolnshire

    c1804 Mountain Lake graphite and watercolour 16.2 x 28.3 cm

    c1804 Interior of a Church, Looking West from South Aisle graphite and watercolour 28.9 x 19.1 cm

    1805 A View on the Greta or the Tees graphite and watercolour 22.7 x 33.2 cm

    c1805 Distant View of Greta Bridge from Mortham Wood watercolour 26 x 39.4 cm

    1805 Crambe Beck Bridge, near Kirkham, Yorkshire watercolour

    c1805 Durham graphite and watercolour 23.5 x 25.4 cm

    c1805 On the Greta graphite, watercolour and gouache 22.8 x 33.3 cm

    1805-15 An Ancient Alms Box, Walsingham Church, Norfolk graphite and wash 24.4 x 17.5 cm

    c1806 An Old House at St Albans oil on millboard 42 x 33.2 cm

    c1806 Tan-y-Bwlch, North Wales graphite on paper 12.7 x 18.1 cm

    1806-08 Boat House and Trees oil on millboard 42 x 35.6 cm

    c1806-10 Duncombe Park, Yorkshire oil on paper laid on canvas 41.6 x 27.9 cm

    c1807 Norwich Cathedral, Entrance to Jesus Chapel graphite and watercolour 27.3 x 35.9 cm

    c1807-08 Moreton Hall, Cheshire oil on canvas 62.3 x 75.5 cm

    1807-10 Buildings on a River  oil on canvas 36.2 x 31.1 cm

    1808 Bamborough Castle, Northumberland graphite 11.1 x 19.4 cm

    1808 St Luke's Chapel, Norwich Cathedral, East graphite and watercolour 35.2 x 46.1 cm

    1808 Bamborough Castle, Northumberland graphite 11.1 x 19.4 cm

    c1808 Interior of Norwich Cathedral, Doorway and Screen Between the South Transept and the Aisle of the Presbytery graphite and wash 25.4 x 17.8 cm

    c1808 A Ploughed Field

    c1808 Seashore with Boats oil on board 28.3 x 41 cm

    c1808 Sheriff Hutton Castle, Yorkshire graphite and watercolour 33 x 21.6 cm

    c1808 The Window Between Saint Andrew's Hall and the Dutch Church, Norwich graphite, watercolour and body-colour 25 x 17.2 cm © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

    c1808 Wherries on Breydon [Attributed] oil on canvas 54.6 x 78.7 cm

    c1808 Lake at Trentham, Staffordshire graphite on paper 21.3 x 34 cm

    c1808-09 The Judgement of Midas oil on canvas 60.8 x 73.7 cm