John Sell Cotman

(16 May 1782 - 24 July 1842)

Cotman was born in Norwich, the son of a shopkeeper who turned from hairdressing to haberdashery. He came to London to further his artistic education in 1798, and soon became a leading member of the circle of watercolour artists gathered around Thomas Girtin, despite having little formal training. From 1803-5 he made annual visits to Yorkshire as drawing tutor to the Cholmeley family; the sketches and studies made there provided the basis for many of his best-known watercolours.

On the formation of the Society of Watercolour Painters in 1804, some personal animosity prevented Cotman from joining, and he returned soon afterward to Norwich, where he became a popular teacher; he lent out monochrome and coloured drawings for students to copy from a 'Circulating Library' which came to number over 1,000 works.

Cotman issued the first of his sets of etchings in 1811. The next decade, when he lived in Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast, was devoted almost exclusively to printmaking, inspired in part by the antiquarian interests of his patron and employer, the banker Dawson Turner. In 1817 Cotman made the first of three tours of Normandy, which resulted in two folio volumes of etchings, published in 1822. Following his return to Norwich in 1823, Cotman took up painting again with renewed energy, in watercolour and in oil; he exhibited more frequently in the city and also in London. In 1834, he was appointed Drawing Master at King's College School in London, and lived in Hunter Street, Bloomsbury. He made a final, extended visit to Norfolk in the autumn of 1841, not long before his death in London in July 1842.

The British Museum now contains works from every phase of Cotman's career. These range from his earliest known drawing (House at St Stephen's Road, Norwich) to an extensive group of the chalk landscapes Cotman drew in 1841 as studies for paintings that he never lived to complete. Alongside Greta Bridge, the work Binyon hailed as the greatest work in watercolour by any English artist, are over two hundred drawings in chalk and pencil, revealing an artist far more varied, and also more spontaneous than would be suspected from his watercolours alone.


English landscape watercolourist and etcher of the Norwich school. He saw in nature the classic effect of precise, austere pattern and expressed this effect by eliminating detail through controlled, flat washes of cool colour.

About 1798 Cotman went to study in London, where he met the painters J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Girtin. From 1800 to 1806 he exhibited watercolours at the Royal Academy, and some of his works of this period are considered among the finest English landscape paintings of the time. Greta Bridge (c. 1805), probably his best-known work, is typical of the work he produced while he lived at Greta in Yorkshire. It is composed almost entirely of broad planes of colour, avoiding chiaroscuro and linear design. Late in 1806 Cotman left London and returned to Norwich, where he worked as a drawing master and exhibited regularly with the Norwich Society of Artists. In 1812 he moved to Yarmouth and began a long period of work as an archaeological draftsman. He returned to Norwich in 1823 and to London in 1834. In his last years his style changed completely, and he mixed rice paste with his watercolours to get a rich impasto effect. Most of his etchings were soft-ground etchings that simulate chalk and pencil drawings.


Cotman was in a great measure his own instructor in art, though he owed much to the kind patronage of Dr. Munro. In 1800, he came to London, where he resided, and exhibited at the Royal Academy until 1806, when he returned to Norwich. In the following year he was made a member and secretary of the Norwich Society of Artists, and in one single year, 1808, he sent no less than sixty-seven works to the exhibition. After various journeys in Normandy, and a residence of some years in Yarmouth, Cotman was, in 1834, appointed Professor of Drawing in King's College School, London. He held this post until his death, which occurred in London in 1842. Besides liis land-scapes and marine pieces in oil and water-colours, he executed numerous engravings of architecture both of England and of Normandy. He published in 1812, Miscellaneous Etchings of Architectural Antiquities in Yorkshire; in 1812-17, Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk; and in 1813-16, Sepulchral Brasses in Norfolk; all of which works were republished with large additions under the following titles -- Architectural Etchings of Old English Buildings, 2 vols, folio, 240 plates; Sepulchral Brasses of Norfolk and Suffolk, 2 vols., 170 plates; Liber Studiorum, 48 plates.

In 1817, he went to France, and collected the materials for his magnificent work, Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, 100 plates, in 2 vols, folio, with descriptive letter-press by Dawson Turner of Yarmouth, which was published in 1822. In 1825, he was elected an Associate of the Water-colour Society, and frequently sent works to their exhibitions. Ten water-colour drawings by him are in the South Kensington Museum.

[Bryan's Biographical and Critical Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, 1901-2.]

Architectural draughtsman and landscape-painter, was the son of a prosperous silk mercer and dealer in foreign lace at Norwich, whose place of business was in London Lane of that town, and whose residence was a small villa on the bank of the river Yare at Thorpe. Cotman was educated at the free grammar school at Norwich, under Dr. Forstor. He was intended for his father's business, but showng a decided preference for art he went to London, most probably in 1798 or 1799, for the purpose of study, and made the acquaintance of Turner, Girtin, Dewint, and others of the group of young artists who met together at Dr. Monro's in the Adelphi. He was, however, one of the later comers, being some seven years younger than Turner, and nine years younger than Girtin.

He must also have already attained much skill, for he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800, and thenceforth to 1806, chiefly views in Wales. In 1807, he returned to Norwich and became a member of the Norwich Society of Artists, and a prolific contributor to their exhibitions. He painted portraits as well as landscapes, and several of these were included in his large contribution to the Norwich Exhibition of 1808, which contained no less than sixty-seven of his works. In 1810, he became vice-president, and 1811, president of the Norwich Society.

Early in life he married Ann, the daughter of Edmund Miles, a farmer of Felbrigg near Cromer, by whom he had five children. As in the case of Crome, his principal means of livelihood was obtained from giving lessons in drawing, and his good looks and pleasant manners assisted his success with the families of the neighbourhood. One of his pupils was afterwards Mrs. Turner, the wife of Mr. Dawson Turner, the botanist and antiquarian [q.v.], a lady of considerable artistic gifts, by whose hand there is an etched portrait of Cotman, after J. P. Davis. Dawson Turner was one of the artist's most constant friends. They were united by a community of taste in art and archaeology, and Cotman taught all his children drawing, and was associated with him in an important work on architecture by subscription.

His first volume appeared in 1811, and consisted of twenty-four plates of ancient buildings in various parts of England. Nex year was commenced his Specimens of Norman and Gothic architecture in the county of Norfolk, a series of fifty plates completed and published in a volume in 1817. Next year appeared A Series of Etchings illustrative of the Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk (sixty plates), and the year after Engraving of the most remarkable of the Sepulchral Brasses in Norfolk, and Antiquities of St. Mary's Chapel at Stourbridge, near Cambridge. During 1818 and 1819, was published Excursions in the County of Norfolk' a work neither published nor projected by him, but illustrated by numerous small engravings after drawings by himself and others. His industry must have been very great when we consider the time occupied by his etchings, his drawing classes, and the large number of drawings in water colours which he also executed, besides an occasional portrait or other picture in oild.

From the catalogues of the Norwich exhibitions we learn that in 1809 and in 1810, he was living in Wymer Street, Norwich. He then removed to Southtown, Yarmouth, returning to Norwich in 1825, when he took a stately red brick house in St. Martin's at Palace. He had a large collection of prints and books, some fine armour, and models of many kinds of vessels, from a coble to a man-of-war. During this time Cotman gave lessons at both Norwich and Yarmouth, and we learn from the Norwich Mercury of 2 August 1823, that his terms 'in schools and families' were a guinea and a half and two guineas the quarter, and for 'private lessosn for finishing more advanced pupils, 24 lessons, 12 guineas.'

In 1817, Cotman accompanied Dawson Turner and his family on a tour in Normandy, which he visited again in 1818 and 1820. The result of these visits to the continent was shown in his Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, which appeared in 1822, with letterpress by Dawson Turner. As an etcher he, according to his own statement, took Giovanni Battista Piranesi for a model, and there is a breadth and simplicity of treatment about them which shows the influence of this master, but he was less conventional than the Venetian, and also less forcible in light and shade. These etchings of Cotman's, as picturesque records of various forms of archtecture, are admirable, but they did not call out his more imaginative gifts as an artist. These are better seen in a small collection of forty-eight 'soft' etchings which he published (1838) in a volume called Liber Studiorum, in imitation of Claude and Turner, some of which, by their charming composition, poetry of sentiment, and elegant drawing, recall both these masters.

In 1825, Cotman was elected an associated exhibitor of the Society (now the Royal Society) of Painters in Water-colours, and from this year till 1839 he was a constant contributor to their exhibitions, sending views of France and Norfolk, landscapes and skeches of figures. In 1834, he obtained, greatly through the persistent championship of Turner, the appointment of drawing-master to King's College, London, a position he filled with great success, and in which he was succeeded by his eldest son, Miles Edmumd. The appointment compelled him to reside in London, where he seems to have spent a hard-working but retired life in Hunter Street (No. 42), Brunswick Square.

His last years were clouded with ill-health and mental depression, which interfered seriously with his work and his happiness. The statement in Redgrave's Dictionary of Artists of the English School that Cotman ultimately lost his reason is unwarranted, but there is no doubt that he suffered from fits of alternate melancholy and excitement, and that the mental condition of more than one of his children gave him great anxiety. Some letters which have been preserved show this and also the strength of his affections, his desire to do his duty towards his children, and the courage with which he endeavoured to meed the difficulties of life.

In 1836, he was elected an honorary member of the Institution of British Architects, and after this, except the publication of Engravings of the Sepulchral Brasses in Norfolk, 173 plates, 1839, there is no other event of suffficient importance to chronicle before his death, which occurred 24 July 1842. He was buried in the cemetery behind St. John's Wood Chapel on 30 July. His collections at Norwich had been sold when he left that place in 1834, but the contents of his house in Hunter Street were sufficient to occupy five days' sale at Christie's. On 17 and 18 May 1843, his drawings and pictures were sold by his executors at Christie's, and realized 262l. 14s. only, nearly all the drawings fetching but a few shillings apiece. The highest price obtained for a water-colour drawing was 6l., and for an oil painting 8 l. 15s. His library, which contained many rare and beautiful works, was sold on 6 and 7 June, and realised 277l. 18s. 6d., and his prints, sold on 8 June, brought only 29l.

The reputation of Cotman as an artist has greatly increased in late years. It is now seen that he was one of the most original and versatile of English artists of the first half of this century, a draughtsman and colourist of exceptional gifts, a water-colourist worthy to be ranked among the greater men, and excellent whether as a painter of land or sea. Although the variety of his sympathy for both art and nature was so great that his drawings and pictures differ much in style, they are generally remarkable for largeness of design and unusual breadth of light and colour. It was his principle to 'leave out but add nothing,' and no one has carried 'omissions' to a more daring extent than he in some of his later works, where great spaces of wall or of sky are 'left,' to the sacrifice of detail but the enhancing of the general effect.

His oil-pictures are comparatively few. He had not time for them in his busy life, but he painted a few large in size and fine in style and colour. Taking him altogether, he was the most gifted of the Norwich School, wider in range, a finer draughtsman, and of more refined and cultivated individuality than 'Old Crome' [q.v.]; but his efforts needed concentration to produce their due effect, and there can be little doubt that if he had had more time to devote to the production of important pictures he would have taken much higher rank as an artist while he lived, and have before now achieved a reputation as a colourist equalled by few of his countrymen. There is one picture by Cotman in the National Gallery, and some water-colour drawing at the South Kensington Museum.

Some fine oil-pictures of his -- 'The Mishap,' a 'Sea Breeze,' and a 'Composition,' with a waterfall and bridge -- are in the possession of Mr. J. J. Colman, M.P., at Carrow House, near Norwich, and Mr. J. S. Mott of Barningham Hall has a small but very beautiful 'Gale at Sea.' Mr. Colman has also a good collection of his sketches, and Mr. J. Reeve of Norwich has a large number of sketches and drawings illustrating the different phases of the artist from 1794 to 1841. Many of his pictures have been exhibited of late years at the winter exhibitions of the Royal Academy, expecially in 1875 and 1878.

[Redgrave's Dict.; Redgrave's Century of Painting; Bryan's Dict. (Graves); Wedmore's Studies in English Art, 1st series; Wodderspoon's John Crome and his Works, edited by Bacon, 1876; notes left by the late Edwin Edwards, and communications from Mr. J. Reeve of Norwich; Dictionary of National Biography, Leslie Stephen, Vol. XII, 1887, by Cosmo Monkhouse.]