The Cotman Collection | A Head in the Clouds above a Seascape: A design for a frontispiece. Called 'A Fanciful Design'

John Sell Cotman

A Head in the Clouds above a Seascape: A design for a frontispiece. Called 'A Fanciful Design'

A Head in the Clouds above a Seascape: A design for a frontispiece. Called 'A Fanciful Design'
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: A Head in the Clouds above a Seascape: A design for a frontispiece. Called 'A Fanciful Design'
Date: c.1801
Object name: Drawing
Medium: Graphite on card
Support: Mounting card
Dimensions: Support: 228 mm x 200 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1949.0009.0646
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1949

This is a rough graphite design for a decorative vignette or frontispiece. A face looks out from clouds swirling above an open seascape with boats to the left, heeling in the wind, with a coastline, perhaps with cliffs, to the right. Beneath the subject Cotman has inscribed his name and the date 'John Sell Cotman/ 1801' in a flamboyant and decorative script.

Kitson's 1937 catalogue No.697 and his 'Life of Cotman', 1937 p.26 describe the unusual circumstances under which the drawing was discovered. In 1931 Kitson bought the watercolour of 'A Seascape' (LEEAG.1949.0009.0647). Holding it to the light he could see indications of a signature beneath. Sometime before 1937 a Mr England of the British Museum removed the drawing from its mount to reveal the present drawing on the mounting board beneath. The original reed and bistre lines of the mount may still be seen around the edge.

Kitson's description of the subject in his 1937 catalogue and in the Life p.26, does appear to require some revision. In the latter he says 'a pencil scribble was found on the face of the card. Cotman had been amusing himself by jotting down at random something which he thought would never be seen again. There is a girl's head, surrounded by foliage; a landscape in vignette, and his own name in full 'John Sell Cotman, 1801' written in his most flamboyant script'. The landscape is, rather, a seascape and the face above not certainly that of a girl, and appears as a part of a vision above the clouds. In the 1937 catalogue Kitson says further that the face is part of a head lying on a dish. That seems plausible but rather macabre and doubly strange if we are to interpret the forms above the dish as foliage.

It seems plausible to interpret the whole as a rough design for some kind of frontispiece, perhaps to a volume of works. In that case it may be that the face is intended as a self-portrait, If we persist with the idea of a head on a dish we might wonder whether there is some self-identification with John the Baptist and even stretch this line of thought so far as to wonder who might have been Cotman's Salome. On the other hand, it may be sufficient to say that the face appears amongst complex effects of cloud, like some figure of Zephyrus in a Renaissance composition. In any case the whole might be taken as a visual allegory of the imagination. He was at the time nineteen years of age, only two years into his career as an artist, and there might well have been many, especially in his family, that thought he was someone decidedly with his head in the clouds.

Quite what motive there might have been in secreting this drawing behind the watercolour of 'A Seascape' remains a mystery. It might be, as Kitson, Life, p.26 implies, that he simply needed the card on which he had previously doodled as a mount for the watercolour. On the other hand the design is centred in the mount as if to suggest that it was a deliberate part of the package. It might be interesting to discover who was the first owner of the watercolour - nothing is known of its history prior to 1931 - and wonder whether the design had some particular context.

In any case it may be said to be some kind of frontispiece to his career and in the context of the watercolour with which was packaged, it is pertinent that he evidently already styled himself as a marine painter. The Leeds collection includes hundreds of sketches and drawings representing every phase of his observations of marine subjects.

David Hill, November 2017