(Southtown, Great Yarmouth, 29 May 1814 - 15 March 1878, Norfolk and Norwich Hospital)

Landscape artist, was the second son of John Sell Cotman, and was apprenticed to his uncle Edmund, who had succeeded to his (John's) grandfather's business [see Cotman, John Sell]. After about two years' apprenticeship he made the acquaintance of Joseph Geldart, a solicitor of Norwich, who was fond of sketching, and Cotman, who down to that time had not applied himself to art, now determined to follow the profession of an artist. Geldart did the same, and the two friends worked together assiduously. He went to London with his father in 1834, and remained there till 1836, when he returned to Norwich to take his brother Miles's [q. v.] practice as drawing-master. He was a good teacher and an artist of much original power, but he suffered from periodical attacks of cerebral excitement, followed by depression, which presented an insuperable bar to success in life. As he grew oloier these attacks became more frequent; but in the intervals he worked with remarkable energy, producing a large quantity of drawings, many of them of great merit.

In his later years he was often reduced to destitution. In February 1878, he went into the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital to undergo an operation for cancer of the tongue. The operation seemed quite successful, but his elation at the thoughts of recovery brought on symptoms of his malady, and imprudently leaving his room in the hospital to sketch in the early morning caused a relapse, from which he did not recover. He died at the hospital 15 March 1878, leaving a widow and several children.

[Dictionary of National Biography, Leslie Stephen, Vol. XII., 1887, by Cosmo Monkhouse; Mr. James Reeve of Norwich.]

The lives of the children of eminent men are too often regarded only as supplementary, and their history, if recounted at all, is told in an apologetic vein as if to account for the gradual sinking of their great name once more to the level of ordinary mortals. But if the talent of John Sell Cotman was manifested only in moderate degree by his sons, there can be no doubt that the mental disease which shadowed his later years was the sole cause of the wrecking of John Joseph's career.

While the father was moodily brooding over his anxieties, the children caught the contagion. Affectionate and sympathetic, before they were old enough to perceive that their parent's gloominess was the effect of thwarted effort, the stronger of them sought occasional relief in sudden outbursts of passion -- immediately regretted. John Joseph Cotman was born on the 29th of May, 1814, at Southtown, Great Yarmouth. From the account of his early life, written in a journal which he commenced about 1838 (it is preserved by Mr. Reeve), having described the Southtown house among gardens and meadows; the governess, who gave them long lessons and set them tasks to be prepared for next day so that "they would sleep with their books under their pillows."

In 1824, Cotman senior removed his family (there were now six children) to Norwich, where he took one of the larger houses -- the largest on St. Martin's-at-Palace Plain. John Joseph, aged ten, was sent to the school, where he found the lessons short, but "one or two tasks, however, were so difficult in comparison that I determined to evade them, and did so, I fear to my cost."

"On being placed with my uncle (Edmund Cotman, the haberdasher, of London Street), my detestation ot business, a sensation of piide, I felt degraded. As a child, and now, for this uncle I entertain much love and respect." He tells as an instance of his uncle's good qualities -- and it is a proof of his own that he never spares himself -- that he had given me a new cane, which I must at once use on him. "Breaking it, he threw it on the fire, taking no notice of my passionate reply. An hour later he said to me, 'I did not reply to you at the time as I might have given way to passion as you did, but if ever you answer me thus again, you leave my house.' "

Two years later, in January, 1834, his father, having received the appointment of Drawing-master at King's College School, handed over to his eldest son, Miles Edmund, his Norwich teaching connection, and with his second son, John Joseph, repaired to London. To the latter, this exchange of the quiet of the country and his two friends, for almost loneliness amid the bustle of the metropolis, was most trying. At one moment he thought the only cure was to formally break off with his friends, at the next we have him anxiously renewing correspondence. Mr. Reeve, who has the "Journal" already quoted from, preserves a series of very kindly sympathetic letters to John Joseph Cotman in London from his friend, Arthur Dixon. The family remained behind in Norwich, and it seems that Alfred Henry Cotman, the youngest boy, now fifteen years old, had already shown symptoms of mental alienation.

In 1835, he went back to Norwich and took over the teaching-connection from Miles Edmund, who returned in his stead to London to assist the elder Cotman at King's College School. He seems to have settled to the work as well as could be expected and to have given some satisfaction to his pupils. On the 27th of October his father writes about the terms he should ask: -- "I send you Tass's bill of terms for Miss Gunn. J. J. Gurney's terms should not be less than halt a guinea per lesson; you gain no credit by working under price; if a man does not value himself he will be undervalued by the world, depend upon it."

This list of his works is a short one, but it must not be thought that he was indolent. As a matter of fact, whenever health permitted, he delighted in sketching in the open air. But as he depended entirely upon teaching, his drawings were utilised for that purpose, or were sent at once to the shops. The number and slightness of his unfinished sketches, and his anxiety to be sketching on all occasions, may probably have been a result of the nervous affection from which he suffered. We have sketches on every description of waste paper and we find him, when detained away from home, sending for a shilling box of colours and therewith daubing on the white backs of cartoons from Punch. Towards his end he was often in needy circumstances, which were more difficult to support in consequence of his failing health.

In the spring of 1878, he found himself suffering from cancer of the tongue, and went into the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. When the surgeon had successfully performed his duty, says Mr. Reeve, "I again saw him. He seemed to be recovering, but the fit of restlessness was upon him, as I could judge by the activity of his fingers." It appears that he rose very early the next morning, without the permission of the doctor, and went into the Hospital Yard to make a sketch. The result was a relapse, and he had to be carried back to his bed, where he lingered till the 15th day of March. He left a widow and several children. Dr. Cotman preserved many bold pencil drawings and studies for colour, which deserve careful examination, as well as one or two unfinished Water-colours.

[ The Norwich School of Painting: being a full account of the Norwich exhibitions, the lives of the painters, the lists of their respecitve exhibits and descriptions of the pictures, William Frederick Dickes, 1905. (excerpt) ]

View painter's work: John Joseph Cotman (1814-1878) [new window view]