The Cotman Collection | Pont Aberglaslyn, North Wales. Called 'Pont Aber Glaslyn (Beddgelert Bridge)'

John Sell Cotman

Pont Aberglaslyn, North Wales. Called 'Pont Aber Glaslyn (Beddgelert Bridge)'
c. 1806

Pont Aberglaslyn, North Wales. Called 'Pont Aber Glaslyn (Beddgelert Bridge)'
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Pont Aberglaslyn, North Wales. Called 'Pont Aber Glaslyn (Beddgelert Bridge)'
Date: c. 1806
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
Support: White, laid paper
Dimensions: Support: 466 mm x 335 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1922.0300
Credit Line: Bought with funds from the Alfred Bilborough Bequest, 1922

This is a fine, upright landscape composition in delicate watercolour showing a packhorse bridge crossing a mountain waterfall with hills flanking a valley beyond.

The composition originates in a visit to Pont Aberglaslyn in North Wales and is a recollection of the view looking north to the Aberglaslyn Pass in the direction of Beddgelert. The pass is the key north/south passage through southern Snowdonia, and Cotman must have traversed it on both his tours of Wales in 1800 and 1802.

The bridge is the subject of a grand watercolour dated 1801 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (P.28-1939). This must be derived from sketches made on Cotman's first tour of Wales in 1800, but no specific basis has hitherto been identified. The V&A watercolour takes a sweeping landscape-format view of the subject in a weather-swept and brooding environment. It was once owned by Sydney Kitson and formed part of his bequest, but was subsequently apportioned to the V&A with several other important Cotmans. Kitson's entry for it in the c.1937 typescript catalogue of the collection preserved in the Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery (no.661) records 'I identified the view, without any doubt, on the spot 3.10.'29.' Kitson paid a second visit on 4 October 1930, when he made a driving tour of Cotman sites in North Wales with his fellow-collector Norman Lupton ('Cotmania' notebook, volume 4, p.10).

The Leeds composition is more specifically derived from a watercolour of 'Pont Aberglalslyn' dated 1802 at Bolton Museums and Art Galleries. From the date, the Bolton watercolour relates to Cotman's second tour of Wales in that year, and was possibly made on the spot. The washes have since faded to indian red. There are traces of the original colour at the edges.

The Leeds version re-imagines the subject of the Bolton watercolour in reverse with more space and with greater drama and sublimity and with a second, smaller arch to the left. Cotman frequently reworked compositions in reverse, usually as a simple consequence of tracing. The masses of the composition are achieved with the most sensitive gradations of tone and tenderly applied areas of wash. The core idea of a central circle holding together a divergent mass of interlocking diagonals and counterbalances is precisely that of one of his most revered watercolours, 'Greta Bridge' at the British Museum (1902-5-14-17). Although the colour is not so saturated, the present work being little more than a lay-in, the aesthetic concept is more-or-less identical, as is the sensitivity of application and we might easily imagine that they belong to the same creative phase of Cotman's career, circa 1805-6. For many Cotman admirers this period represents one of the peaks of his career.

Kitson's 1937 catalogue draws attention to a landscape-format version of the subject in a watercolour at the British Museum (1902-5-14-16). It appeared plain to him that despite that watercolour's traditional title of 'Mountain Pass in the Tyrol', the subject was also Pont Aberglaslyn.

Timothy Wilcox in notes written for the British Museum watercolour when it was exhibited at Norwich in 2005 draws attention to some similarities between the British Museum composition and an Alpine composition by Turner called 'The Little Devil's Bridge' published in 1809 in a series of mezzotints called 'The Liber Studiorum'. Turner's prints were an abiding influence on Cotman and 'The Devil's Bridge' does appear to have synthesised itself with Cotman's memories of Wales. For all that, however, there is nothing truly Alpine in the British Museum watercolour with regard to the scale of the mountains or the river. The essential elements of the site of Pont Aberglaslyn, the waterfall under the bridge, the forms of the hills and the scale of the landscape are preserved and it is easy to see a lineage in Cotman's development of the composition from its initial treatment in the Bolton watercolour through the Leeds composition.

The real interest is the way in which Cotman's imaginative conception of the subject adapted as it absorbed and accommodated itself to new frameworks and influences. The Leeds composition found its apotheosis in a substantial late watercolour, presently untraced but once owned by Viscount Mackintosh of Halifax. This is reproduced by Victor Rienaecker (1953) pl.95 under the title of 'Mountain Pass in the Tyrol: Via Mala'. The Mackintosh composition is a fairly direct reversal of the Leeds composition in conjunction with the form of the bridge derived from the British Museum picture. It is instructive to line up the Bolton, Leeds, British Museum and Mackintosh compositions, for it then becomes obvious how consistent was the line of development that Cotman followed over the intervening decades in relation to the original subject of Pont Aberglaslyn.

This watercolour was the very first drawing by Cotman to be acquired by Leeds City Art Galleries. It was bought in 1922, the year of a seminal exhibition of Cotman's work that was held at the Tate Gallery. This brought Cotman to the forefront of modernist consciousness in Britain, and attracted a generation of admirers to his work. Sydney Kitson was one of these, and as an active member of the Leeds Art Committee and a patron of the fledgling Leeds Arts Collection Fund, he would no doubt have had a say in its acquisition.

David Hill, June 2017

I am grateful to Jeremy Yates for sharing his observations on this subject.