The Cotman Collection | Kirkstall Abbey, near Leeds; the interior of the chapter house

John Sell Cotman

Kirkstall Abbey, near Leeds
c. 1803

Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Associated Person: Paul Sandby Munn, 1773 - 1845
Subject/Sitter: Kirkstall Abbey, founded 1152
Title: Kirkstall Abbey, near Leeds; the interior of the chapter house
Date: c. 1803
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: White wove paper
Reference: LEEAG.1995.0039.0029
Credit Line: Purchased with help from the V & A Purchase Grant Fund

This is a graphite and watercolour study of the interior of a vaulted Early Gothic interior, with two bays supported by a central cluster of round columns - with a single round column beyond, under a groined vault ceiling. There is a figure seated against the back wall to the right, possibly an artist, sketching. The drawing is inscribed in graphite "Kirkstall Abbey" and numbered "19".

The subject has traditionally been described as Kirkstall Abbey Crypt, but was identified more specifically by Hill 2005 as the interior of the chapter house at Kirkstall. The view is taken from the doorway, looking in, and is perfectly preserved to this day.

Cotman visited Kirkstall twice during his first visit to Yorkshire in 1803. A sketch of 'Weeds at Kirkstall', also in the Leeds collection (LEEAG.1949.0009.0573) is dated 28 July and 21 September 1803. On the first occasion he was travelling in the company of fellow-artist Paul Sandby Munn, and it may be that Munn is the figure seated at the back of the chapter house in this drawing. Cotman must have also made at least one sketch of the 'West Front of Kirkstall Abbey' for that is the subject of an etching by Cotman published in 1811. Leeds has two impressions of the etching (LEEDM.E.1966.0005.0050.page49, and LEEDM.E.2016.0053).

The subject is often, but mistakenly, said to be the same as that in a watercolour by J.M.W.Turner called 'The Refectory of Kirkstall Abbey' (London, Sir John Soane's Museum), In fact Turner shows the interior of the Dormitory Undercroft, now collapsed. Nonetheless the Turner might well have been an influence for young Cotman if his saw it when Turner first exhibited it at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1798 (no.346). Turner did sketch the Chapter House, but from the same point of view as the seated artist here, in a sketch in his 'North of England' sketchbook of 1797 (Tate D00917, Turner Bequest TB XXXIV 11).

Described by Kitson (Life, 1937, p.52) as having 'considerable quality and technical assurance', the watercolour has lost most of its original colour over time and faded to a reddish hue. When Kitson saw it, it was still in the collection of the artist's grandson Dr John Sell Cotman of Reading. Subsequent to Kitson's death in 1937, the drawing has enjoyed a peripatetic existence, before finally being bought by Leeds Art Gallery and accessioned in 1995.

David Hill, November 2017