John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) was one of the finest English artists of the Romantic era. The son of a Norwich barber turned draper, Cotman taught himself drawing as a boy, moved to London in 1798 "to learn to be a painter" at age 16, found employment coloring aquatints for Rudolph Ackermann, then joined in 1799 the informal "academy" run by Dr. Thomas Munro. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800, the year of his first sketching trip to Wales, and may have sketched with Thomas Girtin at Conwy, on the Wales north coast. In 1801 he joined the Sketching Club started by Thomas Girtin (who was then in Paris), and made his living selling drawings for use as amateur sketching patterns. In 1803-1805 he spent his summers in Yorkshire, at the home of his patron Francis Cholmeley (1783-1854) and the art collector Walter Fawkes. Cotman moved back to Norwich in 1806, joined the Norwich Society of painters, and made his living as a drawing master. During 1812-23 Cotman was based in Yarmouth, near his lifelong patron Dawson Turner (1775-1858); with Turner's support Cotman travelled throughout southwest England and Normandy, producing a large number of superb architectural watercolors and etchings. Cotman moved to London and was elected to the Old Water-Colour Society in 1825, and in 1834 became Professor of Drawing at King's College, London.

Cotman's early paintings (before 1804) are notable for their dark and stormy romanticism. Some of this adopts the picturesque style of the Norwich painter John Crome (1768-1824), and some of it clearly borrows from the atmospheric style of Thomas Girtin. The village of Brecknock (1801, 38x55cm), now called Brecon, was sketched during Cotman's 1800 tour of Wales, where he may have met and worked alongside Girtin. His influence appears in the close resemblance between Cotman's design and point of view and Girtin's painting of Bridgenorth, Shropshire done at around the same time. Cotman has reversed the lighting scheme (the sun is behind the artist rather than below the horizon), and brought the distant town and tower close behind the darkened bridge. He still uses a gray underpainting and thickly brushed color, which dull the painting rather than let the light shine through. This muddy style is appropriate to the grim interpretation Cotman gives to rural scenes, and resembles the painting style of Norwich artists, but it was counter to the tastes of London collectors and Cotman soon abandoned it.



Around 1804 Cotman's style went through a complete transformation toward greater light and serene planes of transparent color. Why this change occured is unknown, but it may have been stimulated by the influence of John Varley during 1801-04, when both attended the London Sketching Club, and (I suspect) exposure to the late Italian drawings of Francis Towne, who lived in London from 1800. This new style consists of three elements. From Varley, Cotman learned the application of paint in even washes (and without gray underpainting) on absorbent watercolor paper to produce flat areas of translucent color. Second is Cotman's superb instinct for dramatic value structure — the effective placement of light and dark forms in a composition — which he emphasizes through a subdued and carefully balanced color scheme and the placement side by side of the lightest and darkest color areas. Last is the way these flat color areas and value contrasts are combined in an interlocking visual pattern of great strength and elegance. Key to Cotman's style is his stunningly precise control of edges, shown in his method of "holding out" whites by painting around them, rather than scraping or sponging them out (in the manner of J.M.W. Turner). Greta Bridge (1807, 23x33cm) is one of the most famous paintings from of the series, made from sketches of Rokeby Park and the Greta River, near York, when Cotman was a summer tutor and guest at the Cholmeley mansion. The crisply defined shapes create a feeling of mass and distance through the remarkable control of visual texture within the overall pattern, and by the skillful contrasts of dark and light along important edges. Cotman also uses warm darks in the foreground and cool green darks in the distance to clearly separate the visual planes. The style of the sky, in particular, shows a strong resemblance to Varley's painting of Harlech Castle. The remarkable aspect of this style is that, with the possible exception of details such as the railings on the bridge, there are no recognizable brushstrokes anywhere in this painting, just precisely edged fragments of wash within the precisely drawn pencil outline, layered one over another when completely dried — without blotting, blossoms or mixing wet in wet. This method, like making a stained glass window from jointed pieces of glass, requires careful planning and can give the painting a brittle stiffness because the fields of color tightly interlock across the picture surface. But Cotman's very strong drawing skills and rigorously controlled wash technique make this a good thing: the design takes on an architectural strength that showcases his subtle sense of color harmony.

The typically small size of these Greta paintings (most are 9"x13"), painted on thick absorbent paper, indicates that Cotman probably stretched quarter sheets of paper to ensure perfectly flat washes, then trimmed the finished drawings to size to remove the stretching tape or glue. Nearly all were done in the studio from pencil sketches and color notes taken in the field. The paper was carefully chosen to accept the color evenly, without blotting or blossoming. The Drop-Gate, Duncombe Park (1806, 33x23cm) is an example of the homely, humble subjects that Cotman attempted in this style that still retain an austere yet romantic design and drawing. Cotman's colors are built up through the technique of layering similar colors, each layer slightly darker than the previous, rather than a single heavy layer, which gives his darks complexity and richness. There is a strong contrast between the lightest and darkest colors, but this chiaroscuro is kept to a minimum, and accented by placing the lightest and darkest colors in close proximity. This drawing also reveals Cotman's fine control of edges, which closely follow his pencil outline (visible in the bottom of the image), and his method of creating negative spaces (such as the pickets in the gate and overslung logs) by painting around them rather than lifting or scraping color away. It shows too how Cotman's drawing emphasizes the negative spaces as much as objects. The colors (especially the greens, reds and blues) have been badly damaged by fading, but the general scheme of greens and browns is still visible, with stronger color accents in the reddish bark on the horizontal log and the dark blue flowers silhouetted against the waters underneath. Laurence Binyon called these drawings "the most pefect examples of pure watercolor ever made in Europe," and the style culminates in two fine large watercolors of the Norwich marketplace, painted around 1809 in a brighter style, the clothing of the crowd and awnings of the booths creating an expansive, tesselated pattern.

Cotman's marriage in 1809 induced him to return to Norwich to pursue his career as drawing master. Around this time he also significantly modified his "Greta" style, probably to make his paintings more popular with art collectors. And he burdened himself further (at the request of the banker and amateur antiquarian Dawson Turner) by making hundreds of architectural drawings and etchings of ruins and villages in Norfolk and Suffolk, transforming the best of these drawings into etchings (shown at right). Dawson Turner later sent Cotman to Normandy in 1817, 1818 and 1820 to make more architectural drawings. He clearly loved the Normand countryside and made many fine paintings of the area; in these he imitates the prismatic palette and dominant orange hues of Joseph Turner's middle style, and imitates the topographical artist Samuel Prout in the placement of figures. Street Scene at Alençon (1828, 43x58cm) contains many of the characteristic features of this style: textured, brighter skies; predominantly earth oranges in the landscape features; crisply outlining all the architectural forms and figures with paint (rather than pencil or ink); an emphasis on linear and aerial perspective effects; bright accents of red and blue in the local costumes; highly varied edge shapes along the skyline and steet; scraping and lifting out to create whites. These paintings are generally dismissed by critics, who judge the style derivative and the colors unpleasant. But Cotman painted some grand masterpieces in this period, including two panoramic views of Dieppe Harbor (1823). The etchings proved to be an enormous labor, and he began to suffer from severe depression. He moved back to Norwich to teach, but was hounded by creditors.

Despite his enormous talent and compositional skill, Cotman struggled throughout his later years with family responsibilities, the tedious burdens of drawing master, and increasingly severe symptoms of depression. Around 1830 he changed his painting style again, to much darker and more massively composed imaginary landscapes, painted on small sheets with a watercolor medium made with rice paste that imitated the thick texture of oil paints. But Cotman died in obscurity (Ruskin and Turner never mention him), and an appreciation of his works did not begin until the late Victorian era. Since then, however, his stature as a watercolorist and etcher has only increased.

The benchmark monograph is probably John Sell Cotman by Miklos Rajnai (Cornell University Press, 1982). Much better as a study of Cotman's character, activities and painting methods at the peak of his creativity is the superbly illustrated and beautifully narrated Cotman in the North: Watercolors of Durham and Yorkshire by David Hill (Yale University Press, 2005). Martin Hardie provides an excellent chapter on Cotman in his British Water-Colour Painting: II The Romantic Period (Batsford, 1967), though he slights the paintings made before 1804. There is a long chapter on Cotman in Art and Artists of the Norwich School by Josephine Walpole (Antique Collector's Club, 1997). There is a good discussion and selection of paintings by Cotman in The Great Age of British Water-Colours by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles (Prestel, 1993). Finally, the Tate Britain web site has a large selection of soft ground etchings from Cotman's 1838 Liber Studiorum.