The Cotman Collection | Whitby. Sometime called 'Whilby'

John Sell Cotman

Whitby. Sometime called 'Whilby'

Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Whitby. Sometime called 'Whilby'
Date: 1814c
Object name: Print
Medium: Softground etching
Support: Wove paper
Dimensions: paper: 200 mm x 264 mm
mount: 284 mm x 381 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1949.0009.0765
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1949

This is an impression of a softground etching of a landscape composition showing the view along a river to a large mill building, with high mountains in the distance. There are trees on the right bank of the river, where there is a seated figure and a small, dark dog at the water's edge. The etching has a title printed in neat, professional, script in the centre of the lower margin: ''Whitby', with the number ‘22', upper right.

The plate was etched between 1814 and 1817 by Cotman as part of a series of miscellaneous softground compositions, but not properly editioned until 1838 when issued by H G Bohn. as pl.15 of 'Cotman's Liber Studiorum' .

The prime impression of this plate is a proof printed on blue paper, bound in an album of 49 proofs collected for Mrs Dawson Turner and now at the British Museum (165.b.21). This is the tenth print in the series, and is printed on the lightest of three blue papers that Cotman experimented with in the series. It has highlights added in yellowish-white watercolour and is also one of the largest plates in the whole series, exuding a sense of aesthetic buoyancy and optimism.

The British Museum proof is dateable on the basis of a handwritten title page to the volume and the likelihood that the prints in the album are arranged in chronological order. All but one of the first fourteen subjects is printed on blue paper (one on both blue and plain paper) and it looks very much as if he began the series of softgrounds by intending to produce them all on blue paper, but then changed his mind. All the later proofs are on white papers, and Bohn's 1838 edition is printed on white paper. Impressions on blue paper are very rare.

The British Museum proof is inscribed with the title in graphite by the artist. Unfortunately the key word of the title is not readily legible. We can certainly see that the second word reads 'Yorkshire', but we can make out only sufficient of the first word to doubt that it does not appear identifiable as a 'W'. From other examples of Cotman's handwriting, it seems most likely that it is a 'T', and possibly 'Th..', so the best that we might guess is ''.

The composition, however, has a complicated genesis, and there are several related versions. It seems likely that it is an imaginary composition drawing upon his memories of places visited in his early years. His work in the period 1806-10 is particularly rich in such creations, as he transmuted his observations into Arcadian and Pastoral poetics. One culminating composition of that kind is the large watercolour at Leeds Art Gallery of 'Harvest Field: A Pastoral, which he exhibited in 1810.

It seems possible that the origins of the composition have little or no connection with Yorkshire. Taking the related compositions in apparent chronological order, the first is a drawing at the British Museum called 'Building by a lake, Normandy' (1902,0514.176). This shows an almost identical building and mountain, arranged in a similar composition, complete with foreground water. In style it appears to be early, and a perhaps a preliminary drawing for a watercolour, but the subject matter plainly has nothing whatsoever to do with Normandy, and the proximity of a substantial hill suggests a Welsh or Scottish location, though the former seems more likely since Cotman did actually visit Wales.

The drawing is related to a superb large exhibition watercolour at Norwich Castle Museum, where it is titled 'Classical Landscape' (NWHCM : 1947.217.160). It elaborates the elements in the British Museum drawing into a composition which begins to resemble the present composition in all but the foreground details. A second, high-quality, version of this composition was recently on the market with Sotheby's London, 28 March 2017, lot 268.

Next in order comes a graphite drawing dated 1814 at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA (B1975.2.518) this refines the composition into almost exactly the same configuration as the etching, but with slight differences of detail everywhere. The figure is more consciously Arcadian, the dog sits at his master's feet, and the fenestration of the mill buildings is slightly plainer.

Cotman traced the main lines of that as the basis of the drawing at the Norwich Castle Museum, that served as the direct basis of the etching (NWHCM : 1951.235.612 : F). This slightly refines the lines of the stream, elaborates the fenestration of the main buildings, and repositions the dog more obviously at the water's edge in the centre of the composition.

Several years later in 1824, Cotman determined to publish the softgrounds as a didactic series of exemplars, and in order to promote the new venture he exhibited at the Norwich Society of Artists, no.107, ' A View of Whitby, Yorkshire, part of a Series of Designs intended to Illustrate a Work now publishing on Landscape Composition'.

It seems most likely that this was the etching, but it might have been one of the 1814 drawings. At any rate Norwich Castle Museum has a graphite drawing dated 1825 and inscribed 'Whitby, Yorkshire' (NWHCM : 1973.257 : F) that is a direct copy of the drawing dated 1814 at the Yale Center. The draughtsmanship, however, is weak throughout, albeit derivative, and this version must certainly be the work of a pupil, or perhaps even his Eldest son Miles Edmund, who at that time would have been fifteen, and beginning to seriously practice his future trade as an artist.

There are several returns to the general theme. One of the best is a watercolour at the British Museum called 'Chateau in Normandy, France' (1902,0514.36)

H.G. Bohn's edition of Cotman's etchings comprised of over two hundred and fifty plates. Many were reworked to some small degree in order to five them a little more finish. The present plate, however, shows no sign of any such reworking, excepting for the added title and number.

David Hill, May 2021