The Cotman Collection | On the River Yare

John Sell Cotman

On the River Yare
c. 1809

Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: On the River Yare
Date: c. 1809
Object name: Painting
Medium: Oil on panel
Support: Wooden panel
Dimensions: Support: 419 mm x 330 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1934.0009.LAF
Credit Line: Leeds Art Fund

This is a small studio oil painting of an upright landscape composition showing two figures on a sandy riverbank backed by trees with boats pulled up to the left. One of the figures is sitting at the edge of the stream bathing his feet in the water, whilst the other, wearing a red cap and seaboots, stands close by. There appears to be two boats to the left. The foremost is all in dark brown shade and heavily loaded, perhaps with bricks or tiles, and has a single short mast amidships, carrying a square sail. Beyond is a further vessel almost completely hidden except for its white patched squaresail on a rather taller mast. The bottom quarter of the picture is an open stretch of water and the river recedes to the left towards higher ground. Above is a bright cloud in a blue sky.

Both boats appear to be keels. These were flat-bottomed barges designed for transporting heavy goods on tidal waterways. They were primarily designed to drift with the flow of the tide and were rigged with square sails to provide steerage and sometimes a little wind assistance. Smaller boats could also be man-hauled, and perhaps the seated man has endured a hard day on his feet.

In his 'Cotmania' notebook for 1933-4 (volume 9, p.58), preserved in the Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery, Sydney Kitson recorded seeing the painting at Christie's on 11 July 1934: 'Called at Christie's found Sir Alec Martin [who became chairman of Christie's in 1940] in his shirtsleeves in the basement sorting pictures. Upstairs there is a lovely little upright oil 'On the banks of the Yare' [accompanied by a sketch by Kitson - presumably done from memory since it is not very accurate] 16 x 12 1/2. c.1824. Bought for the Leeds Art Gallery for 120 gns.' It was bought for the gallery by the Leeds Art Collections Fund.

The picture had previously been offered at Christie's on 2 March 1934, when it was bought in for 120gns. Kitson was away at the time, and his friend Paul Oppe alerted Kitson to it in a letter dated 17 April 1934, reviewing Cotmans that had been on the market in his absence: (p.77); 'March 2nd Christie's, Banks of the Yare oil. Very good in the flat patterned 1806-10 manner. Cost a lot of money. I forget how much. You shd have had it.' In the same letter (p.79) Oppe says that it was the best of the Cotmans during the period that Kitson was away. The same notebook (p.83) has a cutting from the catalogue of the sale of 13 July 1934 where called 'The Banks of the Yare'.

Both Kitson and Oppe had a high opinion of this painting. Kitson included an enthusiastic mention of it in his 'Life of Cotman' published in 1937 (p.116): 'Far other is the condition of a small picture, On the Banks of the Yare (No.53) which was acquired by the Leeds Art Gallery in 1934. It is painted on a wood panel. When the old varnish was stripped it was found that the paint was untouched and in pristine condition. It has now been treated with wax and is shown without glass, as no doubt all Cotman's pictures were intended to be seen. The elements in the composition are simple enough, a group of square-shaped trees on the bank, and a square barge with equally square-shaped sails is moored to the side of the stream. The water in the foreground is a lovely blue-grey colour, and the whole picture is particularly attractive alike in design and execution.'

Paul Oppe saw it as a work of 1806-10, and subsequent scholarship has consistently agreed with that dating. It represents, therefore, a very early essay in the medium for Cotman, who made his first oil paintings about 1807.

Cotman's oil paintings tend to be, as the present example, stripped down to a few essentials. This may in some degree be a product of his uncertainty with the medium, but the essentialism is a core part of his aesthetic programme at this stage in his career. The period 1807-10 is full of simplified compositions underpinned by subtle design. As Kitson hints in the 'Life of Cotman', the present composition is designed around a whole system of irregular squares and rectangles. It is especially typical of Cotman to have created a distinct shape off-centre with a cloud, and carry that theme through into the structure of the whole.

Cotman's oeuvre contains a number of similar subjects. Clumps of trees by riverbanks are often titled Postwick Grove after a site about three miles east of Norwich. The best-known examples are two compositions developed as softground etchings around 1814 and published in 1838 under the title of 'Postwick Grove' in his series 'Cotman's Liber Studiorum'. The Tate has examples of both. The present composition also seems also to anticipate the reductive poetry of some of his later masterpieces such as the 'Postwick Grove' at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, (PD.80-1950).

His sons were also attracted to such subjects and the Leeds collection includes an etching of a similar subject by Miles Edmund Cotman called 'Trees and Pond' (LEEAG.1928.0012.0009) and a watercolour by John Joseph Cotman called '?The River Yare below Crown Point, possibly at Postwick Grove, near Norwich' (LEEAG.1949.0009.0470).

Rajnai 1982 notes a small preparatory drawing for the present composition that was exhibited at Eastwood Lodge Norwich in 1984.

Cotman's oils have been relatively little studied and are ripe for re-evaluation. It may be noted here that his reductivism is obviously aesthetically intentional. This quality is especially striking in comparison to the contemporary performances of Turner. Oil was generally a medium for demonstrative performance in the competitive environment of the grand exhibition. Cotman's painting takes reticence and quietude into a quite different dimension.

David Hill, June 2017