The Cotman Collection | Coal Shaft on Lincoln Hill at Coalbrookdale. Called 'The Brick Kilns'

John Sell Cotman

Coal Shaft on Lincoln Hill at Coalbrookdale. Called 'The Brick Kilns'
c. 1806

Coal Shaft on Lincoln Hill at Coalbrookdale. Called 'The Brick Kilns'
Artist: Drawn by John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Associated Person: Paul Sandby Munn, 1773 - 1845
Title: Coal Shaft on Lincoln Hill at Coalbrookdale. Called 'The Brick Kilns'
Date: c. 1806
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: Off-white, wove paper
Dimensions: Support: 219 mm x 326 mm
Reference: LEEAG.PA.1923.0500
Credit Line: Given by Michael Sadler, 1923

This is a carefully drawn graphite study, finished in watercolour, of a horse gin with two horses, attached to winding gear at the right and situated on an open promontory, with the roofs of buildings to the right. A broad plume of smoke rises from the centre distance, partly obscuring the higher ground in the distance. The foreground seems largely composed of spoil, and a stream issues from a duct mouth to the left, whilst a small trolley and other paraphernalia stands parked at the right.

Originally titled 'The Brick Kiln' this drawing was retitled by Sydney Kitson in his 'Life of Cotman', 1937 p.41 as 'Coal Shaft at Coalbrook' (repr. Pl.10). His reference was a watercolour that he owned by Paul Sandby Munn showing exactly the same subject, dated 1802 and inscribed 'PSM/ On Lincoln Hill, Coalbrooke/ 1802'. Kitson reproduced that for comparison in the 'Life of Cotman', 1937, pl.9, and most recently it was with the London dealer Guy Peppiatt in July 2007, cf. (accessed 17 January 2016).

Cotman and Munn were in the area at the beginning of their tour of Wales in 1802. They were at Bridgnorth on 8 July and afterwards at Wenlock and Ironbridge. The three-mile stretch at Ironbridge where the river Severn cuts through the midland coal measures was flanked by iron smelting and casting works and the hills burrowed by coal mines. Lincoln Hill rises steeply from the Severn at Ironbridge, and forms a promontory with Coalbrookdale flowing into the Severn on its western flank. In the watercolour, we must be looking west with the Severn below to the left, smoke rising from works in Coalbrookdale, and the profile of The Wrekin in the right distance. The profile is given by Cotman in pencil, but cut through by wreaths of watercolour representing smoke.

It is salutary to compare the Cotman version with that by Munn. Quite apart from Cotman's greater delicacy of draftsmanship and wash, the detail everywhere is superior. Cotman properly understands the mechanism of the winding gin, and how the ropes connect to the lifting pulleys at the right. Kitson speculates that the present drawing might well be that exhibited by Cotman at the Norwich Society of Artists in 1808 as no.107, 'The Coal Shaft; a coloured Sketch'.

Miklos Rajnai (1979, p.52) dates the present watercolour to c.1805 and groups it with a drawing now identified as 'Bridge Repairs, Norwich Castle' at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1951.235.431) and another of the 'New Bridge, Durham' at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (PD I-1949). Rajnai also relates the present drawing to the very fine watercolour of 'Landscape with a Water-Driven Tilt Hammer' at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1951.235.131).

Rajnai also mentions (op cit, p.56, under no.44, note 8) a pencil study for this composition exhibited at Norwich, Eastwood Lodge in November 1974 (no.16). Jeremy Yates suggests in an email of 28 November 2017 that this must be identifiable with the graphite drawing exhibited at Colnaghi's London 'Exhibition of English Drawings, Watercolours and Paintings' in 1973, no.14 as 'Coal Shaft at Coalbrook' (repr).

The Colnaghi drawing looks to be a preliminary drawing for the present composition. In style it appears to sit more comfortably with drawings from 1802 or shortly thereafter, rather than from around 1805 or 1806 when Cotman's pencil style was at its most self-conscious, sensitive and driven by a sense of abstract design.

Jeremy Yates (ibid) makes the important observation that the cylindrical object towards the right of the composition appears in greater detail in another drawing in the Leeds collection of 'Industrial machinery: Called A Grindstone and wooden trough' (LEEAG.1949.0009.0023). It is not at all clear what the proper function of the object might have been, but exactly the same relationship of industrial drum with a wooden tough-like structure appears here. It is also present in the Colnaghi drawing, albeit in the foreground, rather than to the right.

A very thin strip of the original colour is preserved around the edge, where it has been protected by a matte. We can see from this that the drawing originally had a full range of colour and was more richly toned. The faded condition makes any assessment of the date a little difficult. The frankness of the pencil work suggests that its might, even, be a sketch from the time of the tour, but the relationship with the Colnaghi drawing shows that it is a compositional development of that. The general critical consensus is that it must, rather, date from the early years of his residence in Norwich after 1806. The defining feature of the composition is, moreover, its architectonic serenity, and that reaches a peak in Cotman's work at this time with for example his most famous work, 'Greta Bridge' (British Museum 1902,0514.17).

A different view of almost certainly the same site is the subject of an oil painting at Museums Sheffield. This currently goes by the title of 'Consett Iron Works, Durham' , but the landscape is similar to that here, and perhaps the same horse gin appears at the top right of the oil, seen from a greater distance.

Guy Peppiatt has more recently shown a similar subject attributed to Paul Sandby Munn: Cf. (accessed 1.12.2016)

Kitson notes that Munn showed a watercolour of 'Bedlam Furnace' at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1803 and a dramatic watercolour by Cotman in the Bacon collection called 'Scene in the Black Country' or 'Bedlam Furnace' shows a furnace seen across a river and must certainly be a subject in that same area (repr. Kitson, op cit, pl.5).

The Leeds collection also includes a graphite sketch of a steep bank with a bridge in the right foreground, houses above in the background and inscribed 'Coalbrookdale 1802' (LEEAG.1949.0009.0651).

On the same occasion as sketching this subject, Cotman must also have sketched the subject of nearby 'Buildwas Abbey', the subject of a fine watercolour in the Leeds collection (LEEAG.1929.0007).

David Hill, December 2017

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