John Sell Cotman

John Sell Cotman was an English marine and landscape painter, etcher, illustrator, author and a leading member of the Norwich school of artists. He was born on May 16 1782 and died on July 24 1842.

He is considered to be one of the world’s greatest watercolourists and most gifted of English landscape painters.

Laurence Binyon, a curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum considered Cotman to the equal of his contempory J. W. Turner. He wrote that his ‘genius’ went unrecognised because ‘his finest watercolours’ were not only in private hands, but were essentially private works that had never contributed to his contempory or later reputation (Binyon 1897, cited in Coombs 2012:120). In spite of this he came to be considered alongside Turner and Girtin to be a leading member of the English watercolour school. His work has been influential upon artists such as Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, John Piper.

Binyon published an influential critique of the work of Cotman in The Studio in which he argued that Cotman’s finest works were his drawings, rather than his finished paintings. He made a link between Cotman’s work and the ancient art of watercolour from the Chinese and Japanese tradition. This placed Cotman outside the period of his own times and recognised his appeal to the modern aesthetic.

Caernarfon, with its magnificent castle, was a favourite tourist spot at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and popular with many artists. Whereas older artists such as Thomas Hearne (see fig. 1.) and Paul Sandby included detail and incident, Cotman has concentrated on the effect of the light and the mystery of the landscape (see fig. 2).


Fig. 1.  Sir George Beaumont and Joseph Farington Painting a Waterfall (1777)


Carnarvon 1800 by John Sell Cotman 1782-1842
Fig. 2. Carnarvon (1800) 


Llangollen 1801 by John Sell Cotman 1782-1842
Fig. 3. Llangollen (1801) 

The colour in Llangollen (fig.3) has faded quite a lot, as have many of his other works. The indigo blue is particularly vulnerable to light and many of his paintings have become brownish in tone, which is far from how they were in their original state.  The work is a product of Cotman’s first formative tour to Wales in 1800. With its powerful tonal contrasts and sombre colouring it shows the influence ofThomas Girtin.

I was able to view The Village of Jedburgh, near Roxburgh  (see fig. 4) a watercolour of Thomas Girtin whilst visiting the Printing and Drawing Room in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburg. The colours are also faded in this work, but it is illustrative of the similarities in the approaches of the two artists.

The village of Jedburgh, Roxburgh

Fig. 4. The Village of Jedburgh, near Roxburgh (1880)

The two images below, the first by Cotman (see fig. 5) and the second by John Piper (fig.6), illustrate the influence of Cotman’s work upon Piper.

Doorway of the Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey 1803 by John Sell Cotman 1782-1842
Fig 5. Doorway of the Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey (1803)


The Dairy, Fawley Court 1940 by John Piper 1903-1992
Fig 6. The Dairy, Fawley Court  (1940) 

It was in 1805, on the third of a series of visits to North Yorkshire, that Cotman made the famous sequence of watercolour studies on the river Greta near Rokeby on the Yorkshire-Durham border. The wooded slopes and winding paths close to the river in Rokeby Park are what Laurence Binyon described as ‘the most perfect examples of pure watercolour ever made in Europe’ (Binyon 1931:132).

On the Greta circa 1805 by John Sell Cotman 1782-1842
Fig. 7. On the Greta (c.1805) 

Cotman uses pure, translucent wash layers and minimum shadow. He defines shape with the crisp edges of his washes rather than with outline. In 1805 Cotman wrote to a patron that his ‘chief study’ that summer had been ‘colouring from nature’, and that his sketches were ‘close copies of that ficle Dame’.

A View on the Greta or the Tees 1805 by John Sell Cotman 1782-1842
Fig. 8. A View on the Greta or the Tees (1805) 

Crambe Beck bridge, near Kirkham, Yorkshire

Fig. 9. Crambe Beck Bridge, near Kirkham, Yorkshire (1805)

It is the simple composition of this watercolour Crambe Beck bridge, near Kirkham, Yorkshire (fig.9) that makes it such a powerful image. The delicacy of the washes that envelop the arches of the viaduct capture the fall of sunlight on the scene. The fragile wooden fence glimpsed between the arches serve to emphasise their domination of the scene.

A much admired watercolour Greta Bridge (fig. 10), painted in the same year and now housed in the British Museumis considered one of the greatest examples of English classical watercolour technique, with its boldness and sureness of hand.


Greta bridge BM

Fig. 10. Greta bridge. (1805)

Two years later in 1807 he painted another bridge, this time in Wales,with a compositionally strong horizontal axis.

Road to capel Curig, North Wales 1807

Fig. 11. Road to Capel Curig (1807)

His use of flat geometrical planes is seen here, in his treatment of the river water, and the tonal contrast due to the sunlight falling on the river throw the mountain ridges into sharp relief.

Later his style became much bolder as he uses paint thickened with flour or rice. A repeting motif in the 1830s was the dark prescence of the mountain of Calder Idris (fig. 12), painted from memory, when he travelled in Wales decades earlier. This series of paintings have a brooding quality, using a predominantly blue palette and simplified composition.

Cader idris; View on a Mountainside

Fig. 12. Calder Idris; A View on a Mountainside (1830s)

Another beautiful painting with similar colours and technique is Mountain Tarn (fig. 13), below.

A Mountain Tarn 1830-35

Fig. 13. A Mountain Tarn (1830-35).

Some of the advances in technique arose for the availability of wove paper from the 1790’s, following which manufacturers provided increasingly stronger paper, with surfaces prepared with different levels of sizing and finish to alter their absorbency. To some extent this is apparent in this most beautiful work Study of Sea and Gulls painted in 1832 by Cotman (fig. 14). The paint is applied boldly, leaving areas of white paper for the sky, while the small white gulls have either been ‘scaped out’ or ‘lifted out’.

Study of Sea and Gulls

Fig. 14. Study of Sea and Gulls. (1832)


Figure 1. Hearne, T, (1777) Sir George Beaumont and Joseph Farington Painting a waterfall. {watercolour] Available at: [Accessed 10/02.2016]

Figure 2. Cotman, J. S, (1800) Canarvon. [Graphite, watercolour and gum arabic on paper] Available at: [Accessed on  10/02/2016]

Figure 3. Cotman, J. S, (1801) Llangollen. [Watercolour] Available at: [Accessed 10/02/2016]

Figure 4. Girtin, T, (1880) The Village of Jedburgh, near Roxburgh. [Watercolour] Available at: [Accessed 10/02/2016]

Figure 5. Cotman, J. S, (1803). Doorway of the Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey. [watercolour] Available at: [Accessed 10/02/2016]

Figure 6. Piper, J. (1940).The Dairy, Fawley Court [watercolour] Available at: [Accessed 10/02/2016]

Figure 7. Cotman, J. S, (c. 1805). On the Greta [watercolour] Avaiable: [Accessed 10/02/2016]

Figure 8. Cotman, J. S, (1805) A View on the Greta or the trees  [Graphite and watercolour on paper] Available at: [Accessed 10/02/2016]

Figure 9. Cotman, J. S, (1805) Crambe Beck Bridge, near Kirkham Yorkshire [Watercolour] Available at: [Accessed 10/02/2016]

Figure 10. Cotman, J. S,(1805) Greta Bridge [Watercolour] Available at: [Accessed on 10/02.2016]

Figure 11. Cotman, J. S, (1807) Road to Capel Curig [Watercolour] Available at: [Accessed on 14/02/2016]

Figure 12. Cotman, J. S, (1830) Calder Idris; A View on a Mountainside [Watercolour] Available at: [Accessed on 10/02/2016]

Figure 13. Cotman, J. S, (1830-35) Mountain Tarn [Watercolour] Available at: [Accessed on 14/02/2016]

Figure 14. Cotman, J.S, (1832) Study of Sea and Gulls [Watercolour] Available at: [Accessed on 10/02/2016]


Coombs, K. (2012) British Watercolours 1750 – 1950 London: V&A Publishing

Arts Council of Great Britain (1982) John Sell Cotman 1782 – 1842 London: Herbert Press Limited

Lyles, A. and Hamlyn, R (1997) British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue. London: Tate Publishing

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