The Cotman Collection | A river spanned by two-arched bridge with a mountain beyond, and two men in a small boat in the left foreground: Called 'Tan y Bwlch'; 'Landscape in Wales'

John Sell Cotman

A river spanned by two-arched bridge with a mountain beyond, and two men in a small boat in the left foreground: Called 'Tan y Bwlch'
c. 1825

A river spanned by two-arched bridge with a mountain beyond, and two men in a small boat in the left foreground: Called 'Tan y Bwlch'; 'Landscape in Wales'
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: A river spanned by two-arched bridge with a mountain beyond, and two men in a small boat in the left foreground: Called 'Tan y Bwlch'; 'Landscape in Wales'
Date: c. 1825
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: White, wove paper
Reference: LEEAG.PA.1939.0001.0002
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1939

This is a studio watercolour of a view along a river to a two-arched bridge in the middle distance. There are two men in a punt in the left foreground, a house immediately beyond, backed by dark trees and a peaked mountain in the centre distance, flanked by other hills.

Sydney Kitson's 'Cotmania' notebook Volume 1 pp.7-8, records the acquisition of this watercolour from Bowden's of Duke Street, St James's, London, in July 1926 by exchange for a watercolour of the 'Entrance to Gunton Park' (now Birmingham Art Gallery ). He had bought the original drawing from them in December 1925. At the time of acquisition it was called 'Landscape with Bridge & mountain beyond', but on the same page of the notebook Kitson pasted a cutting from the catalogue of the Cotswold Gallery's exhibition of 1923. This lists a group of six Cotman etchings, and it seems possible that Kitson recognised the similarity between the composition of the present watercolour with that one of the items in that list: '14 Tan-y-Beolch, N. Wales (P., 308) 5 x 6 7/8 Soft-Ground Etching. 15s'.

The watercolour stands as the culminating point in the evolution of a bridge and mountain composition through several versions, all called 'Tan y Bwlch' following the title inscribed on the softground etching. The softground was probably made by Cotman about 1824 as part of a series of etchings in that medium, but was not properly editioned until 1838 when issued by H G Bohn as part of his two-volume edition of 'Cotman's Architectural Etchings', plate 14 in series V, 'Cotman's Liber Studiorum'. The Leeds collection does not have an impression of the etching, but there are examples in other collections e.g. Tate T11500; cf.

The identification, however, is by no means straightforward: Tan y Bwlch is a village in the Ffestiniog valley in North Wales. The nearest bridge is that over the river Dwyryd a little further upstream at nearby Maentwrog, but that locality bears no specific relation to that depicted here.

The immediate basis of the softground etching is a graphite drawing at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM: 1951.235.597: F). In the softground process a drawing is made on a sheet laid directly onto the softground medium coating the copper plate. The Norwich drawing is on very thin paper and must be the actual drawing that Cotman made for the etching.

The subject has a long and complicated history. Cotman visited the area in 1800 and perhaps again in 1802. The major surviving product of his visit to the Vale of Ffestiniog is a watercolour that was exhibited at Agnew's in 1992 no. 36 as 'Tan y Bwlch, Merionethshire, North Wales' now in a private collection. The catalogue records that the watercolour is signed and dated 1801, and inscribed with the title on the reverse. It is not stated whether the inscription is in Cotman's hand, but in any case it is slightly problematic. The watercolour shows similar elements, a bridge in a wide valley with mountains beyond, but is certainly not Tan y Bwlch as such, for that village has no bridge, nor is it the bridge over the Dwyryd at Maentwrog, for it is not possible there to bring mountains into such prominence in the background. Rather the locality depicted in the 1801 watercolour is the next bridge up the river Dwyryd - unnamed on OS 1:50,000 maps, but providing the crossing between Plas Dol y Moch and Pont Tal y Bont. Cotman's viewpoint lies on the main road (A496) from Maentwrog to Blaenau Ffestiniog, just where is passes a bend in the river, 200 metres south-west of the bridge. The mountain in the background of the watercolour is the very recognisable ridge of Manod Mawr.

This discovery was actually made by Kitson himself in 1927, although he does not seem ever to have put it into print. His 'Cotmania' notebook Volume 2 (1927-8) records that whilst enjoying a week's holiday exploring Cotman sites around Harlech, on 'Oct 15. visited Tan-y-Bwlch. The bridge and mountains are reversed in J.S.C's soft-ground etching. / 2 miles above (N) Tan-y-Bwlch is another early 17th century (?) bridge - Pont Dol-y-Moch, locally attributed to Inigo Jones (!). Given as no.77 (shd. Br. No.78) in Royal Comms on Ancient Monuments for Wales (p.33). The mountain in centre distance is Manod (the Greater). My watercolour (No.11) [actually no.10 in his c1937 list] seems to be based on an early sketch of this bridge. Mrs Jackson, widow of a K.C. [King's Counsel] lives in a house of 1616 close by & owns the property. 1 arched Roman bridge close by.' The location of the Agnew's watercolour has more recently been independently confirmed by the scholar Jeremy Yates, who has explored all of Cotman's localities in Wales. He kindly shared this material with Leeds in the form of a draft essay 'The Road to the North'.

After the 1801 watercolour Cotman's next treatment of the composition is a pencil and sepia wash drawing with Abbot & Holder in London in 2016 cf.

The use of sepia is the same as that employed by Cotman in the period 1817-21, initially for a series of drawing made to illustrate a publication of 'Excursions in Norfolk' and latterly for his illustrations to be etched in the 'Architectural Antiquities of Normandy'. It seems likely that this composition dates to after the completion of the Normandy series, when he was nurturing ideas of setting up a new drawing school in Norwich, and looking for new artistic directions develop. One of the strong trends in his work of about 1823 is a return to subjects sketched on his Welsh tours of 1800 and 1802. The Abbot and Holder drawing takes the basic composition of the 1801 Tan y Bwlch, and broadens the river, gives greater prominence to the bridge and introduces cows at the right.

The next version of the composition is a graphite drawing in the Leeds collection (LEEAG.1949.0009.0670) that Kitson bought in 1928. That drawing was one of a collection of hundreds bought together, and Kitson identified that subject as 'Tan y Beolch' by association with the inscription on the 'Liber Studiorum' etching. In that version of the composition he moves the bridge into the centre, turns the mountain around, and re-dramatizes the sky, giving the whole drawing greater energy and presence. This appears to be the direct precursor of the Norwich drawing for the Liber Studiorum print which reverses the mountain to its original orientation. Perhaps the reversal in the Leeds 1949.670 drawing was done with that intention all along. In passing it may be noted Kitson's work on this drawing appears to have been the occasion of him identifying the present watercolour as 'Tan y Bwlch', for in his catalogue entry for the graphite drawing (List no.541) he identifies the subject with the present drawing, which he still refers to as 'Landscape in Wales'.

But the Liber Studiorum softground was by no means Cotman's final treatment of the subject. Sometime, probably not long after the print was made, he drew another version of the composition of the Norwich drawing. This is now at the USA, New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1975.3.1128). Essentially this repeats the composition of the Norwich drawing with a little tinkering with the finer details, but most significantly adds a splendid large mountain above and beyond the previous summit. This was added to the drawing school portfolios (number 2066) and Norwich has a copy by S C Edwards dated 1 June 1835 (NWHCM: 1965.377.121: F).

Sometime after that he refined the large mountain treatment of the composition still further in a watercolour in the Hickman Bacon collection. Hickman Bacon had nearly fifty Cotmans and Kitson went to see the collection at the Bacon seat at Thonock, Gainsborough, Lincolnshire 16-17 September 1929. His 'Cotmania' notebook 5 for 1929-30 has a sketch by Kitson of that version. It is painted in bright, clean colours, and schematises the composition more than any of the other treatments, whilst introducing the house towards the left side.

Following that is another graphite drawing for the teaching portfolios (number 2555) which is also at Norwich (NWHCM: 1932.105.8: F). This takes the elements established in the Hickman Bacon watercolour, and gives the mountains greater detail and solidity, as well as innovating by eliminating the river island from the left foreground, reworking the grouping of the cattle to the right and introducing some distant figures on the bank to the left.

Finally, sometime probably still in the mid-1820s, he brought the whole process to a culmination with the present watercolour which reworked the elements in a very sparing but clear-coloured design that is one of the major treasures of the Leeds collection.

David Hill, June 2017