The Cotman Collection | Greta Woods: 'Cotman's Bridge' above the river Greta in Rokeby Park

John Sell Cotman

Greta Woods: 'Cotman's Bridge' above the river Greta in Rokeby Park

Greta Woods: 'Cotman's Bridge' above the river Greta in Rokeby Park
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Greta Woods: 'Cotman's Bridge' above the river Greta in Rokeby Park
Date: 1805
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Watercolour and graphite on laid paper
Support: White, laid paper
Dimensions: Support: 439 mm x 336 mm
Reference: LEEAG.2015.0030
Credit Line: Bought with the assistance of the Art Fund, Leeds Art Fund and The Patricia Hurst Fund, 2015

This is a good-sized upright watercolour of a landscape subject, looking across a clear, stony river running across the bottom of the composition to a steep bank covered with trees occupying three-quarters of the composition, crowned by a small bridge on the skyline centred in a screen of trees against a blue sky with white clouds.

The subject is perfectly recognisable as the small rustic bridge overlooking the river Greta in the grounds of Rokeby Hall, a few hundred yards upstream of the house. When I last visited there was a garden bench handily situated for enjoying the prospect. Cotman visited Rokeby Hall, the Teesdale home of J.B.S.Morritt, two miles south of Barnard Castle, in August 1805 in the company of his Yorkshire friend and patron Francis Cholmeley. They arrived on 31 July and stayed for about three weeks until the Morritts went away and Francis Cholmeley travelled on into Northumberland. Cotman stayed another two weeks at the Morritt Arms near Greta Bridge. Hill 2005 traces the stay in detail, together with the work that he did there.

The watercolour was regarded as one of Cotman's chef d'oeuvres after its exhibition at the Tate in 1922 and its reproduction in colour by Paul Oppe in his book on Cotman published by 'The Studio' in 1923. Sydney Kitson was inspired to try to discover the spot and his 'Cotmania' notebook for 1928-9 (Volume 3) records the he made a Cotman tour of the north of England and on '2 October 1928; 'Went to Greta Bridge, wandered along the river to the junction of Tees & Greta. The little bridge spanning a [?fushet] (now dry) in Lewis Fry's drawing is still there. I wondered if the Waterfall was inspired by the Dairy Bridge with the Mortham Tower behind. Oct 3 Returned to Greta, called on Major Morritt, found him an amateur painter of distinction; admired Cotman's work & had Oppe's book, but no relics of Cotman - thought he must have stayed at the inn while doing his Greta series. Visited 'Scotsman's Stone' below Brignall.'

On the succeeding page is a letter from H E Morritt (Major Morritt) from Rokeby dated 11 October 1928, 'Dear Kitson, How very kind of you to take all the trouble to send me a list of the Cotman Greta drawings and the reproductions. Thank you so much for allowing me to keep one of them. I return you yours herewith and what a beauty it is. I do hope that if you come north next you will come and stay at Rokeby. I wonder whether you ever discovered the Scotsman's Stone. If not next time you come I will introduce you to it personally. Again very very many thanks for all the extremely interesting information contained in your letter and the enclosed list and for all the trouble you took to compile it. Yours sincerely H E Morritt'.

The later Cotman scholar Miklos Rajnai appears also to have sought out the exact viewpoint and remarked in his catalogue of the Cotman Bicentenary exhibition of 1982 (no.36): 'The view in this, one of the most outstanding of the Greta drawings, is practically the only one which can be identified with any certainty as a site within Rokeby Park proper. It is only a short walk from the Hall, with the small bridge still in position and the river bank bordering Mortham woods as luxuriant as ever.'

Hill 2005 develops Cotman's obvious obtuseness in his subject choice - hardly ever depicting any of the houses in which he was staying, or indeed of anything that would have seemed an obvious choice for another artist - as a major theme, but failed to locate the exact subject until Mrs Frances Bennett directed me to it in an email of 11 December 2007, attaching a photograph taken from exactly the same viewpoint as Cotman.

The relationship to the site is so close as to seem uncanny, sufficiently to raise the question as to whether the watercolour might have been painted direct from nature. Leeds has a similarly-sized example in 'The Shady Pool' which is certainly so, and although the complications of the relieved lights of the foliage against the darker background are greater in the present example, there seems no reason that Cotman could not have completed this direct from nature. It is a sheltered spot and but a short walk from the house in which he was staying: He could have set up a stool and drawing frame quite easily, and stayed long enough at the house for there have been quite sufficient time to bring this to a careful state of completion, even working on it over successive days. Given social distractions of bathing in the river, leching after the ladies, and letting his dog get up to mischief (see Hill 2005, p.103 ff] this might well account for the fact that he seems to have done little else whilst actually staying at the house.

Sydney Kitson's 'Cotmania' notebooks (Volume 7 for 1931-2) record that he went to see the present subject, together with several other Cotmans on July 27-29, 1932: 'Stayed with Lewis Fry at Limpsfield [in Surrey, 20m S of London]. His large 'Greta' was in the flood at the Tate. On comparing it with the reproductions in Oppe's book & with Fry's small Greta (which was not in the flood) it is very evident that all the yellow has gone, leaving the drawing rather ashy grey in appearance.' On that and the following page he also copied out a list of the fourteen major Cotmans that were listed for probate on the death of Lewis G Fry's father in 1921. The list includes the present subject as '4 Greta Woods, with bridge in distance (The large Greta repd by Oppe was in the Tate Flood: much of the warm yellow colour has flown. It remains a grey green ghost - still lovely) beq to LG F'.

Lewis G Fry had left Greta Woods on long-term loan to the Tate after its exhibition there in 1922 and on 7 January 1928 the Thames burst its banks and flooded the lower rooms of the gallery on Millbank. Very many works on paper were inundated, including large numbers of Turners from the Turner Bequest and at least one other work by Cotman. Kitson's 'Cotmania' notebook (Volume 2, for 1927-8) records that on 'Monday, March 26. '28. Took my small 'York' Cotman watercolour to the Tate [cf LEEAG.1938.0029.0009]. Saw Messrs Aitkin, Manson & Ede: found that Ed. Marsh's Cotman [of 'The Water Tower, York', now at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford] had been through the Flood & was being reconditioned at the B.M. [British Museum]'.

The Tate flood was widely considered to have been a disaster. Fearing the worst, the collector Paul Oppe wrote about 'Greta Woods' in a letter to Sydney Kitson dated 4 August 1932, and pasted by Kitson into his 'Cotmania' notebook, Volume 7 for 1931-2. The occasion was Kitson's recent acquisition of a Cotman watercolour of Barnard Castle [LEEAG.1938.0029.0010]: 'your acquisition [of Barnard castle] does something to compensate for the loss of Fry's Greta Woods. But it is remarkable that he hasn't felt the damage done to the drawing. Perhaps some people are so much accustomed to their possessions that they don't notice any change in them just as others exaggerate the importance of any changes. More probably he has always been as you say indifferent to the drawing & fonder of his horrid old houses.'

Comparison of the watercolour in its present condition to the colour reproduction in Paul Oppe's 1923 book suggests that Oppe himself was magnifying the effects of the flood in his imagination. It is perhaps still more significant to compare the present watercolour with the watercolour of Barnard Castle from Towler Hill that Oppe seemed to view as something of a touchstone. The 'ashy grey' colouration is almost equally characteristic. In truth most of Cotman's Greta studies seem to have been restrained in colour. All were originally brighter and more limpid, but it is probably in the nature of his pigments and materials that they should have lost something of the freshness of their youth. In some ways that adds pathos to their original understatement, and as Kitson found when he saw this at Fry's in Limpsfield, it was 'still lovely'.

Misadventures notwithstanding, 'Greta Woods' was selected as one of the key Cotmans in a major exhibition of British Art held at the Royal Academy in 1934, and also shown in Amsterdam in 1936, and again at the Whitworth Art Gallery Manchester in 1937. Kitson also gave it fulsome treatment in his 'Life of Cotman' published in the same year as the Whitworth show, where he remarked that it is; 'the least artificial of the [Greta] series. A gully on the steep bank of the river is spanned at the top by a little stone foot-bridge, which stands up dark against a blue sky. The trees cling to the rocks, and obtain a root-hold where they may. There has been no change in all the years since Cotman drew the scene. The descendants of his trees have found the same root-holds and have grown as he drew them. The picture is there, composed by Nature: Cotman saw it an endowed it with a magic quality which was all his own.'

Few commentators, however, have given sufficient emphasis to how extraordinary a piece of subject selection it truly is. The little bridge provides a key-note, but almost any architectonic element would have served just as well as a foil to the masses of foliage, stone and earth. Truly this could be a multitude of places, if not quite anywhere. Even as a key note, the bridge is hardly the most obvious subject at Rokeby. Dairy Bridge, a few hundred yards downstream near the meeting of the Greta and Tees, is a more impressive bridge, spanning a more impressive stretch of the Greta, where the channel is cut almost square through massive blocks of limestone. The combination of Dairy Bridge, rocky river and pendant foliage presents a combination that uniquely characteristic of the site, and no-one who sees it, let alone bathes in it, will forget the brown transparency of the water, revealing square cut slabs of stone, darkening as the beds deepen into the water. It is almost as if Cotman made a performance for the Morritt family and their guests, out of ostentatiously squaring up in front of the most generic piece of the landscape of Rokeby that he could possibly select.

The group of watercolours that Kitson saw at Limpsfield in 1932 was one of the best groups of Cotmans in private hands, and had all been bought from the artist in the late 1830s by the banker Francis Gibson of Saffron Walden. Gibson became an admirer of Cotman's work in the early 1830s, and during Kitson's visit to Limpsfield he saw a diary kept by Gibson from that time. In his 'Cotmania' Volume 7 1931-2, July 27-29, 1932 he transcribed; 'Extract from Francis Gibson's Diary./ Tues Nov 18, 1834 - 'To London.. Called on Cotman: his pencil drawings most nobly square, bold, characteristic & expressive'.

Gibson also had a particular interest in the scenery of Teesdale for he invested heavily in new developments in the north-east, including the world's first passenger railway, the Stockton and Darlington, and the subsequent development of Middlesbrough. He spent two months of each summer in Teesdale and in 1843 bought a country house, Balder Grange not far from Barnard Castle. It is not surprising therefore that in 1837 he should have bought three drawings of Rokeby subjects from the artist. Greta Woods was one, and the others were studies of trees now at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford (P.539) and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA, Paul Mellon collection, (B1977.14.4671), both reproduced in Hill 2005, pls.129, 130.

The watercolours descended to his daughter who married the Rt Hon Lewis Fry, son of Joseph Fry, the Bristol chocolatier, and thence descended through three further generations of the Fry family. Lewis G Fry, who welcomed Kitson to his home at Limpsfield was a significant artist of the inter-war years, and was clearly influenced, as were most progressive landscape artists, by Cotman.

In the 1920s Cotman's formal qualities were frequently admired as precursive of modern progressive practice. In 1926 the Director of Leeds Art Gallery, Solomon Kaines Smith wrote a book on Cotman concentrating on that aspect. Lewis G Fry wrote to Sydney Kitson shortly after completing it, to complain that such intense analysis too complicated practice as an artist. The letter is pasted in Kitson's 'Cotmania' notebook, volume 1.

In passing it ought to be noted that the greatest champion of formal values in painting was the critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) who particularly promulgated the notion of 'significant form' in his famous book 'Vision and Design' (1920). He was Lewis G Fry's cousin, and must have seen the family Cotmans as a young man when they were in the possession of his uncle and aunt. It is somewhat disappointing that Roger Fry's principal interests were focused almost exclusively on contemporary continental artists, and he made very little specific mention of Cotman.

The most recent owner of 'Greta Woods' was another artist, Timothy Gibbs (great-great grandson of Francis Gibson) who exhibited into his late eighties, again with some influence from Cotman, and in 1980 commissioned Museum prints of Painswick, Gloucestershire (The Curwen press) to make an edition of 850 facsimile prints priced at £36 each, with notes by Timothy Gibbs. A copy of the notes is in the archive at Norwich Castle Museum. It was from his estate that the watercolour was consigned to Christie's in 2015, where Leeds was able to buy it with the assistance of the Art Fund. It takes its place now in the Leeds collection, to make the group of 'Greta' period drawings at Leeds one of the strongest in the world.

David Hill, November 2017