The Cotman Collection | A View from Welton, Yorkshire i.e. The rivers Humber, Ouse and Trent, from Welton, near Hull, Yorkshire (windmill)

John Sell Cotman

A View from Welton, Yorkshire i.e. The rivers Humber, Ouse and Trent, from Welton, near Hull, Yorkshire (windmill)

A View from Welton, Yorkshire i.e. The rivers Humber, Ouse and Trent, from Welton, near Hull, Yorkshire (windmill)
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: A View from Welton, Yorkshire i.e. The rivers Humber, Ouse and Trent, from Welton, near Hull, Yorkshire (windmill)
Date: 1804
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Watercolour on wove paper
Support: Wove paper
Reference: LEEAG.PA.1938.0029.0012
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1938

This is a substantial exhibition watercolour of a panoramic prospect from open downland with two figures in the lower right corner, looking towards a tower windmill in the centre middle distance, its vanes facing right, with a manor house and a church tower towards the left, and a large river stretching across the distance, glittering in sunlight.

The subject is the river Humber as seen from above the village of Welton, looking towards the confluence of the rivers Trent and Ouse in the right centre distance. The view is still recognisable, with Welton Lodge visible in the centre left, and the tower of Walton Church at the far left, but the windmill was demolished in 1843.

Welton is about seven miles west of Hull, and Cotman visited the area in September 1803. The Cholmeley papers at North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton record that on Wednesday 14 September: 'Mr & Mrs Cholmeley, Mr F Cholmeley & Mr Cotman left Brandsby on a little tour to Beverley, Hull, Howden, Selby, Leeds and Wakefield'. The tour is described in full by Hill 2005, p.63 ff. Hill observes that Welton was clearly an extremely wealthy village, full of handsome houses, but there are no obvious links with the Cholmeley family.

Kitson's 'Cotmania' notebooks, preserved in the Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery record (vol.10, for July 31 1935): 'Walkers Galleries sent me two faded but interesting watercolours 'Kirkthorp Ch: Yorks, J S Cotman 1804' & 'The Rivers Humber, Ouse & Trent, from Welton near Hull, Yorks', signed but undated & evidently 1804. The latter is the same scene as 'View on the Humber' at Pietermaritzburg. Walker rang up next day & I bought them over the telephone. Mr & Mrs Walker came to tea on Aug 4 & inspected my collection'.

Kitson's 1937 catalogue records that 'Mr E J Musgrove, Curator of the Wakefield Art Gallery, wrote to me 9.12.'35. The two Cotmans were purchased by Walkers @15 1/2 guineas each, at a sale at Heath Hall, Wakefield, July 24, 1936 [a mistake for 1935]. The house was the property of Col. Smyth, who died in May. In the list of subscribers to Cotman's Miscellaneous Etchings 1811. The Right Hon J Smyth, Heath Hall, took one copy, and Miss Symth, Heath Hall, took another'.

Musgrove's original letter is pasted into 'Cotmania' volume 11, amongst a sequence of letters from 1935 and 1936. On 9 December 1935 he wrote: 'It is my opinion that the watercolours were purchased from Cotman by a member of the Smyth family, when he was in Yorkshire in 1804, and have been in the house ver since. I had hoped to secure them for Wakefield Art Gallery but unfortunately at the time we had no money in our coffers and I was unable, during the short time at my disposal after seeing the watercolours, to find anyone to buy them for us. I had to withdraw from the bidding at the very modest figure of fifteen guineas each and Mr Walker bought them with his next bid of fifteen and a half.' Later he adds 'You will perhaps pardon the suggestion, but I should like to ask with deference whether it is possible that either or both these pictures will ever return to the City which, in my humble opinion, they rightly belong'. Kitson responded on the 11th and on the 19th Musgrave supplied further information: 'The fourth John Smith of Heath was born in 1748 and died in 1811. He was the first of the family to enter public life and became a member of Parliament for Pontefract. He was a member of the Privy Council and successively Lord of the Admiralty, a Lord of the Treasury and Master of the Mint, and in the Administration during the American War of Independence. His wife was Lady Georgiana Fitzroy, daughter of the third Duke of Grafton, and they had eight children - five sons and three daughters.' Kitson had, it appears already made up his mind that he was going to give the watercolours to Leeds, and Musgrave conceded defeat: 'I regret that you cannot consider my suggestion as to the future home of these two drawings but I fully understand the position with regard to Leeds. They will, at any rate, be in their proper district.'

It is possible that the Smyth family had some connection with Welton, perhaps through marriage, but, if so, none has yet come to light. It is certain, however, that the present watercolour was painted as a pair to that of Kirkthorpe Church (LEEAG.1938.0029.0011) which Kitson bought at the same time. Kirkthorpe is in effect the local church to Heath Hall. There is also evidence that Cotman painted a watercolour of Heath Hall, for there is a later nineteenth century engraving (reproduced by Hill 2005, Pl.77, p.66) of the house inscribed as being taken 'From [a] drawing by Cotman'.

Kitson (List, 1937) also noted that there was a later monochrome version of this composition in the Tatham Art Gallery at Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. This is reproduced by Kitson (Life, 1937, pl.21) and by Hill (2005, pl.73). It may be dated to about 1808, and represents a subtle refinement of the present composition. Kitson Life p.62 observed of it: 'This drawing, in a medium which Cotman used throughout his life with masterly skill, must be accounted one of his most attractive works.' Davd Boswell (Leeds 1992 p.16) says that in 1935 Kitson took a cruise to South Africa to begin writing his biography of Cotman. Whilst there he made the journey inland to Pietermaritzburg to see the watercolour at the Tatham Art Gallery. In many ways it proved talismanic to his Cotman researches. In 1926 he had sent a photograph of it as a Christmas card to his nephew Robert Hawthorn Kitson, and never in his life did he travel further in his quest to see Cotman's work. It was perhaps too much for him. Long consumptive, he suffered a major haemorrhage on the return journey. Nevertheless the long journey distilled perspective on Cotman's significance (Life, 1937, p.62) 'Seen in the clear light of its South African resting-place, it seems to be an abstract vision of England'.

Cotmania volume 11 (pages not numbered, but this page 8) preserves a cutting of the title, reproduction and entry number from the Pietermaritzburg catalogue, where it appeared as no.212 as 'Near Hull, Yorkshire'

A pencil version of the composition dated 1822 was sold at Rowley's Fine Art Auctioneers & Valuers, Fine Art and Antiques sale, 18 November 2014, lot 980 as Attributed to JOHN SELL COTMAN (1782-1842) British Travellers Approaching a Windmill in an Extensive Landscape'.

David Hill, June 2017