The Cotman Collection | The West End of the Refectory of Walsingham Priory, Norfolk

John Sell Cotman

The West End of the Refectory of Walsingham Priory, Norfolk
c. 1808

The West End of the Refectory of Walsingham Priory, Norfolk
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: The West End of the Refectory of Walsingham Priory, Norfolk
Date: c. 1808
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
Support: Laid paper
Dimensions: Support: 410 mm x 292 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1931.0008.0008
Credit Line: Given by Sir Michael Sadler through the NACF in memory of Lady Sadler, 1931.

This is a major studio watercolour of a church gable with a large Gothic traceried window standing in sunlight against a screen of dark trees. Below the window, in the angle of an adjacent wall, is a rough lean-to shed, with timbers propped against the walls and a pile of earth or sand in the left foreground.

The subject is the west end of the refectory of Walsingham Priory, Norfolk. Walsingham lies between Fakenham and Wells-next-the-Sea, and was one of the most venerated pilgrimage sites in pre-Reformation England. The abbey ruins stand in the grounds of Walsingham Hall and may be visited by the public.

Walsingham was a major subject for Cotman and this is one of a group of three watercolours of the subject painted about 1808. The others are 'East end of the refectory of Walsingham Priory' (Private collection, sold Bonham's, London, 6 July 2016, lot 62) and the 'East End of Walsingham Priory Church' (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia) both similar in style, and of quite ambitious dimensions.

This and the Bonhams watercolour suggest building work going on in the north wing of the house. The house was remodelled and landscaped over a period of ten years from 1806. The gable end of the house adjacent to the refectory was at some stage removed, and the windows and roofline Gothicised, although the fenestration appears to be in the same place. Kitson (Life 1937 p.108) dated the Bonhams watercolour to 1807 or 1808 on stylistic grounds, and related it to the building work taking place at this time. Kitson, however, does not fully recognise the relationship between the Leeds and the Bonhams watercolours in which the latter is effectively the continuation of the same field of view to the left of the present watercolour. Between the two, the watercolours record an array of timbers and building detritus. The lean-to shed in the present watercolour was presumably the carpenter's bothy.

The complete ensemble survives almost unchanged from Cotman's time, although the collapsed section of the south wall has been regularised, and the flint of the walls stripped of render, but it still has the same relationship with the house. Kitson commented of the Bonham's watercolour: 'This is the loveliest of the Walsingham drawings. Cotman has used his grey greens, chrome yellows and browns, as a foil to the dark trees in the distance and to the blue sky above, flaked with summer clouds; whilst the different planes of the picture are managed with almost magical skill.' The palette is almost identical in the present drawing, with the additional aesthetic keynote of the red sheeting used for the shed roof and Cotman's signature technique at this period of drizzling on colour in pools, and allowing it to dry to a crystallised surface.

As a treatment of Walsingham, the present subject perfectly exemplifies Cotman's customary obliqueness. It is hardly the most obvious or characteristic subject that the site offers. Other artists offered much more readily identifiable views. Cotman's letters of this period, however, prove a high level of awareness of the work and approach of others, and it is obvious that he positioned himself in deliberate relation to established treatments

He returned to sketch at Walsingham in July 1811 when gathering material for a project of 'Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk'. He etched a view of the south wall of the refectory as plate 12 of that series, dated 1812. Miklos Rajnai in his catalogue of 'Cotman's Early Drawings at Norwich Castle Museum', 1979, under no.122 records that a later version of the present subject was exhibited at Gainsborough's House, Sudbury, in 1978 no.45 though 'perhaps not wholly autograph'. Besides these Cotman made many other subjects at Walsingham, reviewed by Rajnai 1979.

This watercolour was presented to Leeds City Art Gallery in 1931 by Sir Michael Sadler. Sadler was Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds 1911-1923, before he moved to Oxford to become Master of University College. He was a great collector of both old Master and avant-garde art, and against the best in this extremely wide field he had a special admiration for Cotman. This is one of three works from Sadler's collection that Sydney Kitson was invited to choose for Leeds Art Gallery in memory of Lady Sadler.

David Hill, June 2017

I am grateful to Elizabeth Meath Baker of Walsingham Abbey for supplying details of the building works there around the time of Cotman's visits.