Twenty-one letters written by Arthur Dixon, born around 1811 and working as a pharmacist in Exchange Street, Norwich, to his friend John Joseph Cotman (1814–1878), second son of John Sell Cotman. Twenty letters date from 1834 and one dates from 1835.
This is an especially difficult period for all the Cotman family. In January 1834, John Sell moves from Norwich to London to teach drawing at King’s College. He takes with him the nineteen-year-old John Joseph, who is to seek a livelihood in the city, but he leaves behind his wife Ann (née Miles, 1783–1862) and their four other children. This disruption unsettles John Joseph who, like his father, is prone to depression.
John Sell figures in the letters in a marginal way, but the focus is on Dixon’s feelings of friendship towards the slightly younger John Joseph and on his concern for John Joseph's health. Dixon advises him to rise early and take exercise such as rowing. He suggests that, rather than undertaking over-ambitious works of art, John Joseph should draw portraits that will advertise his abilities to ‘the ladies’ – potential female pupils. Dixon gives news of his life in Norwich, with some titbits of local gossip and occasional mention of mutual friends such as the artist Joseph Geldart, who was said to be a pupil of John Sell, and of the other members of the Cotman family who had remained in Norwich. Dixon treats John Sell’s invalid wife and his daughter, also called Ann (1812–1862). Dixon and his friends enjoy drawing. (Miles Edmund Cotman writes to John Joseph in a letter of 31 March 1834, found in another volume, that ‘Dixon has made a color’d portrait of Geldart, forcible in color, but deucedly bad’.) They make music: ‘Your sister sung very nicely’, Dixon tells John Joseph after one soirée. He quotes Shakespeare and other poets, and Rousseau in French. He studies the political and literary Quarterly Review. A younger Cotman brother, Alfred (aged about fifteen), comes to him for help with his Latin homework, ‘with eyes red with weeping’. Dixon lives in Thorpe, a couple of miles outside Norwich, where John Joseph’s grandfather had a house. He is a keen gardener. He loves walking. Visiting a friend in a village ten miles away, he strides out in conversation with the Cotmans’ dog Carlo. Once he ‘sails’ into town up the River Yare, ‘the Wind blowing quite a gale with a bright sunny & almost cloudless sky so clear & cool, our broad bodies, with the help of the paddles stuck upright, bearing us along’. To go further afield, he takes a gig. After travelling to Yarmouth in this way in November 1834, ‘I e’en stript on the beach and had a dip’.
Each letter was folded four times, closed with a wax seal or a red paper disk called a wafer, and addressed (no envelope needed). Postmarks can give the date of posting. Dixon’s touching correspondence was evidently kept carefully by John Joseph. It passed to James Reeve, to the artist Arthur Batchelor, and then on to Kitson.