John Sell Cotman

The Ploughed Field
c. 1805


The Ploughed Field
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: The Ploughed Field
Date: c. 1805
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: Off white wove paper
Dimensions: Support: 228 mm x 350 mm
Reference: LEEAG.PA.1923.0508
Credit Line: Purchased 1923

This is a studio watercolour of a landscape scene looking over a freshly ploughed field that occupies the lower half of the composition. There is a figure standing in the field to the left, and several crows tied to sticks in the right foreground and at intervals across the field. The furrows descend towards a shallow valley running across the middle distance, with a line of trees curving into the distance, a path climbing an open grassy field right of centre, and chalk wolds rolling away to distant hills under a line of grey cloud. The watercolour is mounted on a larger backing sheet of cream wove paper, possibly by the artist, for the verso has an ink inscription 'Mr Cotman' presumably written by its (as yet unidentified) original owner.

The landforms and marl are typical of (but not exclusive to) a chalk wolds landscape. The season is autumn, with the trees still in full leaf and the fields being ploughed for winter wheat. Amongst the areas with which Cotman is associated, such a scene would be typical of the Yorkshire Wolds, but also of north and west Norfolk.

Corinne Miller (Leeds 1992) makes the suggestion that 'The Ploughed Field' is based on sketches made in the vicinity of Brandsby Hall, the Yorkshire home of Cotman's patrons the Cholmeley family, about ten miles north of York. No sketches or studies, however have yet been identified that correspond exactly to this subject. The Leeds collection includes a pencil sketch of a similar landscape (LEEAG.1949.0009.0018) but this has no specific correspondence with the present subject, and although it is possible that it represents a subject in the vicinity of Brandsby, its exact location is uncertain.

Hill 2005 treats it as a Brandsby subject sketched in September 2005 without offering any precise suggestion of a viewpoint. There is similar scenery looking towards the Pennines from the Brandsby to Byland Road near the village of Yearsby, and Cotman must have travelled that route several times, but nowhere has yet been found that answers exactly.

'The Ploughed Field' is one of the most exhibited of all Cotman's watercolours, and certainly one of the most widely lent objects from the collections of Leeds Art Gallery. It appears, however to have been entirely unknown until 1923, when it appeared with the Palser Gallery in London where it was bought by Leeds City Art Gallery. It was fourth Cotman to enter the collection, the first (Pont Aberglaslyn) having been bought only the previous year, the second (Falaise) bought shortly before this and the third (Coalbrookdale) given at almost the same time by Sir Michael Sadler.

It was feted from its arrival at Palser's. At that time, the Cotman scholar and collector Paul Oppe was writing a monograph on Cotman for 'The Studio', and reproduced 'The Ploughed Field' full-page and in colour while it was still in the possession of the dealer. He spoke about it only in passing, but his colour reproductions served as the definitive guide to the best of Cotman for a generation, and has only been surpassed in recent times. Three years after Oppe, Solomon Kaines Smith, the curatorr of Leeds City Art Gallery, published the first full-length critical analysis of Cotman, and reproduced 'The Ploughed Field' as its frontispiece, and spoke about it as the one of the epitomes of Cotman's perfection of the formal values of the medium of watercolour. After that it has been relentlessly on the road, never resting for more than a few years before being despatched. Looking through its exhibition history, it does seem a rather hectic schedule for such a retiring object.

It continues to define Cotman's uniqueness as an artist. Corinne Miller (Leeds 1992) comments: 'In terms of subject matter and composition it is both revolutionary and in advance of its time. While the juxtaposition of the cultivated and the natural landscape was familiar to an audience whose countryside had been carved up and tamed by agrarian enclosures, the devotion of one third of the composition to the steeply receding furrows of the plough are without precedent and firmly establish this watercolour as one of the earliest examples of a romantic naturalism which was to take over from a 'picturesque' sentiment where there was no place for 'worked' land'.

The non-descriptness of its subject is also part of its unique quality. Miklos Rajnai (V&A 1982) observes 'it has come to represent the quintessence of what is best in Cotman's first Norwich period' and quotes Kitson (Life 1937) in his claim that it is 'one of the loveliest glimpses of an imaginative landscape ever created by Cotman's mind and hand', and assertion that 'it marks the summit of Cotman's contribution, in his earlier and less sophisticated phase to the art of watercolour painting'.

In 1805 Cotman turned dramatically away from the bold and dramatized landscape sublime that was popularised by Turner, to an alternative, simplified pastoral. This was entirely deliberate, yet far too radical for the public taste. Hill 2005 explores the story more fully, but even Cotman's friends and patrons found the shift difficult to comprehend. 'The 'Ploughed Field' may be taken as the exemplar of his turn towards reticence and understatement. Its size, soft and velvety texture, completely quotidian subject, yet extraordinary subtle arrangement of shape, colour, contour and light, in both surface and depth - notice, for example the sweep of the cloud shadow across the field - is the supreme exercise in undemonstrative refinement and subtlety of its time. It represents the complete antithesis to the strident, clamouring competition that for the most part was art in exhibition in the early nineteenth century: So antithetical, in fact as to exceed all context for its age, and it continues to challenge expectations in a visual environment that has taken a taste for the histrionic to hyperbolic levels.

David Hill, June 2017