The Cotman Collection | The Overgrown Well

John Sell Cotman

The Overgrown Well
c. 1810

The Overgrown Well
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: The Overgrown Well
Date: c. 1810
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: White, wove paper
Reference: LEEAG.PA.1936.0025
Credit Line: Presented by Robert Hawthorn Kitson, 1936

This is a studio watercolour composition of an upright landscape showing a circular brick well head in the centre foreground, standing in a rough enclosure formed by a wooden beam running diagonally into the composition from the left towards a rustic paling gate at the right, with one paling loose. The well superstructure, with its bucket, winding pulley and chain is entirely overgrown by a rampant climbing plant with fingered leaves forming a luxuriant green arch. Beyond, is a view down a valley to blue hills with mature trees closing the composition to the right. The drawing is numbered and signed in brown watercolour lower right '1674/ Cotman'.

Sydney Kitson saw this watercolour when it appeared in the salesroom in 1927. His 'Cotmania notebook for that year, Volume 1, p.25, has a cutting of Sotheby's catalogue for 23 June 1927 and a sketch drawing, annotated '23.6.27 - Mrs Adams's [or Adami's] Colln. Sotheby's. Drawing copy - early (c.1812) quiet colours. Bought by Finberg for £29 with Palser as underbidder'.

A J Finberg was a friend and correspondent of Sydney Kitson, and ran his own gallery 'The Cotswold Gallery' in Soho. Palser was one of the leading London dealers in British watercolours, so it seems clear that the present watercolour was highly regarded.

The following year Fnberg included it in his annual watercolour exhibition and Kitson's 'Cotmania' volume 2 for 1927-8, p.57 has a cutting from The Cotswold Gallery catalogue for June 1928, annotated 'Bt by RHK [with 'The Red Cloak' for £75'.

Robert Hawthorn Kitson was Sydney's nephew, besides being a considerable artist in his own right, and was almost as keen a collector of Cotman. He too, had a close association with Leeds Art Gallery, advised the purchase committee and regularly presented works to the collection. This was part of a sizeable donation in 1936.

Surprisingly it does not seen to have been very much shown during its life at the gallery. This is perhaps all the more surprising given that it was evidently held in very high esteem when it was shown at the Cotswold Gallery in 1927. Kitson's 'Cotmania' notebook volume 2 preserved a review of the exhibition from 'The Times' for 23 June 1928, 'English Water-colours', mentioning this drawing in particular: 'In some respects 'The Overgrown Well' is the most interesting drawing in the collection, because it shows the artistic quality that great man cannot help getting into what might be regarded as an exercise. It is not unlikely that the drawing was made as a 'copy' for pupils. Everything in it is very carefully planned, you see how everything is done - the stylisation of the foliage and the tinting of the individual bricks or stones - and yet the total effect - the slow movement of the arch of green and the dark impact of the block or pulley on the sky - is intensely though quietly emotional.'

This seems a remarkably appreciative comment. The watercolour belongs to a considerable number of compositions made for the portfolios used in Cotman's teaching of drawing. In 1809 Cotman advertised a commercial circulating library of six hundred drawings as being available to borrow and be delivered by the artist with individual critique and instruction at the end of the period (see Kitson Life 1937, p.130). Cotman continued to augment the collection throughout the early 1810s after he moved to Great Yarmouth and became permanent tutor to the Dawson Turner family. It may be that the present watercolour was made for tuition in Turner's Drawing Room.

It is perhaps slightly disconcerting that a good black and white photograph of this watercolour in the Witt Library in London, taken sometime after Robert Hawthorn Kitson's donation of the picture to Leeds, seems to show a much darker and richer tonality than is found today. The may be a property merely of the photographic print, because when the drawing was exhibited at Leeds City Art Gallery as a new acquisition in 1937 the reviewer in 'The Observer' for 7 March described it as 'not in the least typical of him, and one that could be more aptly described as a tinted drawing.' Cleaning in 2017 made it possible to appreciate more of the subtlety of Cotman's tinting and colour.

Cotman was attracted to old wells as subjects. Leeds has two graphite sketches from 1799 of 'The Well House, Ashtead Park, Surrey' (1949.585/6). The Witt Library in London has photographs of a watercolour c.1802 of a 'Covered Well House', possibly in Wales, that was once with the John Manning Gallery (no date given), an elaborate and highly decorative graphite composition c.1803 of' A Well under the Trees' that was once with the Fine Art Society in London (no date given). Either of those, but particularly the latter might be identifiable with a drawing of 'A Well' that Cotman left with his hosts the Cholmeley family at Brandsby Hall near York when he was touring in Yorkshire in 1803 (Hill 2005, p.69). The Witt also has a photograph of a solid and monumentalising watercolour of 'A Well-Head with Gothic Tracery', possibly of a similar date to the present composition that was once with Walker's Galleries in London, and also in the collection of a Mrs Bracecamp (but again no dates given). Leeds also has a copy of an etching of a well-head called 'The Drawn Well' that Cotman etched about 1833, but which was not properly editioned until 1846 (Leeds Art Gallery 1949.777). In addition to these Wakefield Art Gallery has a watercolour attributed to Cotman of 'A Well Head', and the Norwich Castle Museum has pencil drawings of various wells (NWHCM : 1932.105.42; NWHCM : 1965.377.119) plus two of the 'Wishing Well at Walsingham' (1951.235.606/8 : F), together with a well-head by Ann Cotman, the daughter of the artist (NWHCM : 1945.89). It is not impossible that the present subject is a Norfolk subject and perhaps even in some way connected with Walsingham.

'The Times' reviewer found the frank straightforwardness of the technique a virtue, and its introspection on a simple pastoral subject even moving. The group of works to which this belongs has an affectedly naif quality. There is a calculated simplicity to the way in which they present their objects to the viewer's sight; generally one thing at a time, and in a readily appreciatable form. In some examples Cotman approaches an almost child-like simplicity analogous to many of Wordsworth's early poems. Kitson's gift of the picture to Leeds in 1936 was perhaps unfortunate timing for its aesthetic values. The pastoral represented the antithesis to the remorseless development of economy, industry and competitive aggrandisement. Its charm was brutally crushed by World War II, and in the years that followed the quest for Arcadia was replaced by one for Utopia and the Pastoral became all too quiet a poetic for the building of a techno-industrial future.

David Hill, June 2017