The Cotman Collection | Screen in the south aisle of Walsoken Church, Norfolk

John Sell Cotman

Screen in the south aisle of Walsoken Church, Norfolk
c. 1816


Screen in the south aisle of Walsoken Church, Norfolk
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Screen in the south aisle of Walsoken Church, Norfolk
Date: c. 1816
Object name: Drawing
Medium: Graphite on wove paper
Support: Cream, wove paper, the lower corners clipped.
Dimensions: Support: 199 mm x 284 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1949.0009.0628
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1949

This is a painstaking graphite study of a Gothic carved wooden screen. It has two registers of traceried panels, each with two bays above and three below, with the centre panel of the lower register forming an arched portal, and the flanking panels seated on solid masonry bases with chamfered piers. The drawing is inscribed by Cotman in graphite, lower left, 'Drawn & Etched by J S Cotman', titled lower centre 'A SCREEN IN WALSOKEN CH NORFOLK'; and inscribed lower right, 'and Published 181 [the last digit is damaged but appears to be a '4' or a '7']'. In the lower right corner is the number '4', and on the verso in the top right corner is the number '2'.

The drawing was etched by Cotman in 1818 for a projected series of etchings of 'Specimens of the Norman and Gothic Architecture in the county of Norfolk'. The etching is also in the Leeds collection (LEEAG.1949.0009.0629).

The subject is the still-surviving screen between the south aisle and south chapel of Walsoken Church. All Saints Walsoken is a large church in the eastern suburbs of Wisbech, and whilst the town is in Cambridgeshire, the church is in Norfolk, albeit at its extreme western boundary. The screen is a remarkable survival, and was at least four hundred years old when Cotman drew it.

Walsoken Church was a major subject for Cotman. Kitson says (Life 1937, p.151) that he visited during a tour of west and north Norfolk in September 1811 in search of subjects for his projected 'Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk'. The tour is reported in a letter written to Dawson Turner from Castle Rising on 20 September (ex Barker collection, now Norfolk County Record Office). The letter is quite detailed about the itinerary, however, and does not mention Walsoken, which is considerably further west than anywhere that is mentioned. It seems more likely that Cotman made his visit to the Wisbech area at some other time. His etchings of Walsoken all date from 1817. A drawing of nearby Emneth Church, a couple of miles south, at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM: 1951.235.469) is dated 1816.

It is possible that the drawing was begun on the spot. This is a subject that would require careful drawing, and it appears that Cotman began with a ruled construction and then filled in the details of tracery freehand. The accuracy of the detail which subtly varies across the entire field - with individually designed motifs in the roundels for example - would suggest that it must have been drawn from the original. It must have been a time-consuming and engrossing exercise. In finishing it, however, Cotman has added all the detail, including the lettering that was to appear in the etching. When one considers that the drawing would have to be transcribed onto the plate as a mirror image, (so that it would print the same way round) it must have been an extremely painstaking task.

The image is perhaps not one of Cotman's more immediately interesting or attractive, but consideration of it in relation to the subject reveals it to be a remarkable piece of meditation and sensitive observation. Some differences may be immediately observed. The screen is evidently not in its original position. The present base is taller, and the chamfered plinths have disappeared. Careful checking reveals small losses almost everywhere: The central rectangular panel of the lower register towards the right is missing; most of the decoration across the centre of the lower panels has gone, as have most of the central bars that it supported. The upper tier, however, apart from one or two breakages appears to have survived amazingly intact, and the observant eye will realise that it is not at all regular.

One of the great beauties of pre-Renaissance decoration is the variety of handiwork that occurred within the overall system. Look, for example, at the decorative roundels that run across the upper tier at about two thirds of the way up. Each one is different from the next. Ruskin was later to cherish the variety and humanity of the individual hand in Pre-Raphaelite Art, but we can see an appreciation of it already in Cotman.

Comparison with the etching is salutary. Whilst the present drawing is largely ruled, in the etching any straight lines take on the blips and wobbles as a cardiograph. It was clearly a device (and evidently required some artifice) to invest the etched line with a timbre and modulation that would humanise it.

Norwich Castle Museum has sketches of capitals in the nave (3.749.966). Leeds has two etchings showing differing views of the interior (LEEAG.1949.0009.0741/742), the former of which is taken from exactly the same stance as the present sketch, effectively continuing the same field of view around to the left. There are pencil drawings related to both compositions, and watercolours related to the latter, discussed in greater detail in their respective entries.

Cotman also etched the Tower, based on a watercolour sold at Christie's 4 June 1974 no.182, repr., the figures of which are based on a pencil drawing in the Leeds collection (LEEAG.1949.0009.0387). He also etched the font, based on a drawing that once belonged to Sydney Kitson, and formed part of his bequest but which was allocated to the Royal Institute of British Architects. These were sold in 1975 to Paul Mellon and that drawing thus found its way to the Yale Center for British Art (USA, New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection B1975.2.515. Bradford Art Gallery has a closely related drawing of the font (1925-013).

David Hill, November 2017