The Cotman Collection | Barnard Castle From Towler Hill

John Sell Cotman

Barnard Castle From Towler Hill

Barnard Castle From Towler Hill
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Barnard Castle From Towler Hill
Date: 1805
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
Support: Off-white, laid rag paper with conspicuous flecks and a reticulated grain
Dimensions: Support: 330 mm x 432 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1938.0029.0010
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1938

This is a substantial watercolour of a landscape view taken from high ground, looking across a wooded river valley to a castle on a distant bluff overlooking fields rolling towards grey hills and blue sky beneath a shelf of grey cloud.

The subject is Barnard Castle, seen from Towler Hill about a mile north west up the river Tees. The view is perfectly recognisable today. Cotman visited nearby Rokeby Hall, the Teesdale home of J.B.S.Morritt, two miles south of Barnard Castle, in August 1805 in the company of his Yorkshire friend and patron Francis Cholmeley. They arrived on 31 July and stayed for about three weeks until the Morritts went away and Francis Cholmeley travelled on to Northumberland. Cotman stayed another two weeks at the Morritt Arms near Greta Bridge. Hill 2005 traces the stay and the work that he did there in detail.

The watercolour is now universally counted as one of Cotman's most important works, but was unknown to scholars and collectors until it was consigned to Sotheby's in 1932. Sydney Kitson tells the story in his c.1937 typescript catalogue preserved in the Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery (under no.702): 'At Sotheby's, July 20, 1932, Captn. W.A. Worsley (Heir of Sir Wm. Worsley) of Hovingham Hall, Yorks sent about 55 lots of old master drawings, mostly Van de Velders, 1 Rembrandt landscape etc. 'lot 109. A parcel containing watercolours and other drawings, chiefly by artists of the English School etc, a parcel'. It contained the above drawing, P Oppe spotted it, as did N Lupton. Meatyard viewed it 5 minutes before the sale began. He asked Sotheby's clerk to bid for him up to £80. Oppe bid up to £45, and the lot fell at £50 to 'Lambert'. N Lupton wired me about it. I went up two days later and bought it from Meatyard for £85'.

The excitement of the acquisition is vividly documented in Kitson's 'Cotmania' notebooks. Kitson was at home in Oxfordshire at the time of the sale, and was oblivious to events until immediately after the sale a telegram arrived from his friend and fellow-collector Norman Lupton: 'Mayfair 20 July 1932, 3.40 p.m. Meatyard has just bought against Oppe Greta period Cotman Barnard Castle from far up north Bank. Ranks with Agnes [Lupton's Cotman watercolour of Brignall Banks, also now in the Leeds collection, q.v]. Cost him fifty-two. Worth coming up at once as others will hear of it. We cannot buy at present. It is ex Hovingham junk lot 109. Norman'.

The same day Paul Oppe wrote to Kitson. His letter is pasted opposite Lupton's telegram: 'Dear Sydney, A superb Cotman - Barnard Castle - wide open landscape, full colour, blue & greens, not quite finished was anon. in a lot at Sotheby's today. (*not signed. Inscribed Barnard Castle at back. I should say done shortly after the visit, like H Bacon's large Greta). I went up to £50 with you or Norman in view. Norman [Lupton] being without my knowledge standing behind me all the time! It was bought by Meatyard acting thro' the clerk so that I didn't know that he was bidding. He said that he didn't know that I was. Go see the drawing & buy it.'

Kitson acted straight away. He sent a telegram to Meatyard, and the dealer's letter of reply is on the next page of the 'Cotmania' notebook: 'Dear Mr Kiitson, Many thanks for your telegram. I am holding the Cotman drawing, which is a real 'stunner', awaiting your call.'

Immediately below Kitson takes up the story in his own hand: 'On July 20, at Sotheby's, Captn W A Worsley sold 62 lots of old master drawings, including a Rembrandt sketch (Colnaghi £115). The last lot of his property was '109. A Parcel containing watercolours & other drawings, chiefly by artists of the English School, &c, A parcel.' When this lot had fallen to Lambert (Sotheby's clerk acting for Meatyard) Oppe, Duke, Crook, Trilling, N.D.L. etc, darted after Meatyard. The parcel contained a superb distant view of Barnard Castle by J.S.C. large 13 1/2 x 171 /2, done on the spot - absolutely unfaded. I went to London on July 22 and bought it.'

£85 was a significant sum, but by no means close to the highest prices fetched by Cotman at this time. As Kitson's comment on the Rembrandt drawing demonstrates, it was considerably less than minor works by more established artists. It was about a quarter of the average annual wage for the time. It was probably the most important of all the Cotmans that Kitson managed to buy. He seems to have been astonished that he managed to secure it at all within the bracket of his conceivable expenditure.

A few days later he sent a photograph to Paul Oppe, who answered on 4 August. My dear Sydney./ Thank you very much for the photograph of Barnard Castle. It looks very fine indeed; possibly the overexposure [of the photographic print] has given an added effect of contrast & filled in some of the white spaces; anyhow it is a magnificent drawing & it is only right & proper that it should be yours. I saw Norman [Lupton] on Monday and we gossiped about it and you. He too is completely happy that the drawing should be in your possession & not his'.

It is plain that everyone thought that the watercolour was a real treasure. A couple of days before Oppe's letter, the Cotman scholar H Isherwood Kay of the National Gallery in London, who was working on a [never-published and still-required] catalogue raisonnee of Cotman's works and had recently published an edition of 'Cotman's Letters from Normandy' [1926 and 1927] wrote to Kitson: '2 August 1937; Sir O Sir, This drawing you have so wisely bought must surely contain the very essence of Cotman the landscape painter, and must be a perfect distillation of English Pastoral Landscape. I say 'must' because I am judging from the excellent photograph you have sent me, but I can imagine the colour and light from having seen Miss Lupton's drawing [Brignall Banks - mentioned earlier by Oppe] which is obviously closely related to it. The mood comes through even in [a] photograph and I can well believe the 'Harvest Field' is under eclipse. If, as you think, the drawing is done direct from nature it is a remarkable production. With only a photo as a guide I am unable to make up my mind on the point, but I daresay a sight of the drawing - to which I am much looking forward - will soon settle hesitation./ To think of it lying still and lovely these hundred and thirty years awaiting your hungry desire and my wistful envy! And what a contrast - this drawing of 1805 and the letters [written when in despair of his lack of artistic recognition] of 1826.'

Cotman had every cause to be disappointed by the world's lack of recognition. In the late summer of 1805, after his sojourn in Yorkshire at Brandsby and on the Tees and Greta at Rokeby and Durham, he must have felt in possession of a truly mould-breaking body of work, with the potential to earn him recognition and fortune. The fact of the drawing's languishing so unrecognised and unloved as to be bundled up in a 'junk' lot, tells a powerful story of invisibility of Cotman's value tothe majority of his contemporary and subsequent public. At the Royal Academy of 1806, Cotman exhibited a version of the composition as no.540 under the title of 'Barnard-Castle, from Towler Hill'. Its appearance was met with silence and Cotman felt that the verdict on his work at that exhibition was one of complete rejection and rebuttal.

This is in marked contrast to the reception of Barnard Castle in the later 1930s. On 26 December 1932 Laurence Binyon, the long-time curator of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, poet, and writer on English watercolours, wrote to Kitson, and his letter is pasted into 'Cotmania' notebook Volume 8 (p.51): 'My dear Kitson,/ Thank you so much for the photograph of the Cotman & for your good wishes, cordially reciprocated./ The photograph makes me eager to see the drawing: I feel how deliciously the colour must lie on the paper. How good is that sharp contrasted curve of the field under the massed wood in the middle distance! What a joy it must be to you!

Art historians today tend not to speak much of the perfection of a curve, or to confess to their appetites being aroused by the way in which paint might lie upon a paper, but during the inter-war years such things were marks of civil education and training, and treasured as expressive of the civilising and humanising agency of art. The year in which Kitson bought this watercolour was the very nadir of the worldwide slump that followed the stock market crash of 1929, and owners of collections such as that of Hovingham were being forced to disperse their holdings and break up their estates so that bills and wages could be paid.

Numerous exhibitions were held to showcase art as a national civil treasure. The following summer Martin Hardie, who was Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, curated the watercolours section of a huge exhibition of British Art held at the Royal Academy the following summer. Kitson had sent him a photograph of 'Barnard Castle' and Hardie's letter of reply of 27 July 1933 is pasted into the 'Cotmania' notebook volume 9 for 1933-4 (p.6): 'My dear Kitson/ Many thanks to you for drawing my attention to your 'Distant View of Barnard Castle' and for sending a photograph of this. I had not seen the drawing and it is probably my fault that it was not pressed [into service in the exhibition] before. We have agreed now to include it and you will receive an invitation from the Royal Academy. This does not affect the fact that we shall want your two monochromes. Do you want the photograph of your water-colour returned, or may I keep it here? It looks to me to be a most lovely drawing'.

The exhibition opened on 6 January 1934, and included a group of thirty pictures by Cotman. Kitson pasted several press reports into his 'Cotmania' Volume 9 for 1933-34, and the general tenor of the reviews is that the public appreciation of British Art was at a low ebb, and in need of reassertion on the basis of the exhibition. Cotman is almost always singled out for special mention. He was pressed into representing the cause further, and 'Distant View of Barnard Castle' travelled to Amsterdam in 1936 no.200, and Paris in 1938 (no.177), besides being shown in Leeds in an exhibition 'Sixty Pictures of Yorkshire Scenery' in 1937 (no.7). In the years before the war it seems to have been held up like a charm to ward off the gathering storm.

Kitson was the first to publish any substantial comment on the watercolour in his 'Life of Cotman' published in 1937 (pp.82-3): Of the Greta series of drawings, The Distant View of Barnard Castle (No.32) is numbered '2', and was probably done in the early days of August. It is seen from Toller [now Towler] Hill, a view-point to which the Morritts were wont to take their guests soon after their arrival at Rokeby.. In the drawing the full greens of the trees on the wooded banks of the Tees are rendered with a solemn weight of colour. The blue river winds between these banks; while the towers of Barnard Castle beyond form a central point of view. In the foreground is the warm yellow of a gravel pit, and a coarse-meshed riddle at the right hand corner gives static lines to the design. Overhead the heavy clouds of a passing thunderstorm are parted where the blue summer sky shows beyond. It is such a sky as often broods over the Yorkshire scene and such as seemingly could happen no-where else. The drawing is made on thick absorbent paper which allows of no fumbling or alteration in statement. There are no such blemishes here.'

Kitson (Life 1937, p.95) firmly distinguished between the present drawing and that exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1806, but Miklos Rajnai (NCM 1975, p.60) and Corinne Miller (Leeds 1992, no.15) both suggest that the present watercolour might be the exhibit. It seems inconceivable to the present writer that Cotman could have exhibited such a work as this at the Royal Academy, and plain enough that Kitson was correct in thinking that Cotman must have painted this direct from nature. For one of the most practiced watercolourists of his generation, there is nothing in the present drawing that could not have been painted out of doors, indeed the whole character of the application of wash and the limited number of colours used seems to argue for such an origin. Towler Hill is quite near enough to Rokeby for Cotman to have gone there on several occasions, and the size and paper, as well as style and general colouring, is exactly the same as that of the 'Greta Woods' recently acquired by Leeds Art Gallery (LEEDM.E.2016.0053) which I argue here must also have been painted direct from nature.

Hill 2005 (p.131) seems to have been the first to notice that the present composition is almost exactly the same as that of 'The Harvest Field: A Pastoral', which was also owned by Kitson and given by him to Leeds (LEEAG.1939.0001.0006). Hill 2005 describes the 'Harvest Field' as a reworking of the theme of 'Barnard Castle from Towler Hill' as an Arcadian pastoral for exhibition at the Norwich Society of Artists in 1810. I cannot, however, forbear entertaining a slightly more radical suggestion here. What might be the possibility of 'The Harvest Field' actually being the same picture that Cotman exhibited as 'Distant View of Barnard Castle'? That would have the merit at least of saving us having to search for a lost picture. Kitson (Life 1937, p.95) says; 'If ever the drawing exhibited at the Royal Academy comes to light, the subject would be found, likely enough, to have been drilled into simpler and more formal shape when the scene was no longer under the artist's eye'. 'The Harvest Field' lacks the distant Barnard Castle that would have been in the exhibit, but there is sufficient congruence between the present watercolour and 'The Harvest Field' for it not to be beyond all possibility that Cotman reworked the unsold exhibit.

Towler Hill was an established resort for visitors to Teesdale from the mid eighteenth century. Michael Rudd (2007) gives a detailed account of 'The Discovery of Teesdale'. One of the first to mention the view is the poet Thomas Gray and thereafter there are visits by William Hutchinson in 1773-4, Anne Wilson in 1778, the Viscount Torrington in 1792 and Richard Garland in 1802. Kitson (Life, 1937, p.85) says that Towler Hill was 'a view-point to which the Morritts were wont to take their guests soon after their arrival at Rokeby' and Rudd (2007, p.81) suggests that Cotman might also have read Garland's recently published description of the scene: ' At Towler Hill, you have a grand view of the ruins of Barnard Castle, at the termination of a fine avenue of the Tees, of near a mile long; one bank of which is a magnificent hanging wood for the whole extent, and the other a verdant flat, but soon rising to a gentle swell, which bounds the eye, and directs it to an extensive prospect over the town into Richmondshire'.

When Sir Walter Scott visited for the first time in 1809, he enjoyed the prospect at sunset, and described the site in his poem Rokeby, published in 1813:

The sultry summer day is gone,

The western hills have hid the sun,

But mountain peak and village spire

Retain reflection of his fire.

Old Barnard's towers are purple still

To those that gaze from Toller-hill.

Those lines made the site famous, and in 1816 Turner took his place on the spot to make a sketch for an intended watercolour. Today the view is principally associated with Scott but given that Cotman's is the first to significantly frame visual consciousness of the site, perhaps the poet's laurel should be awarded to the artist.

David Hill, June 2017