The Cotman Collection | Road to the Hills

John Sell Cotman

Road to the Hills
c. 1838

Road to the Hills
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Road to the Hills
Date: c. 1838
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Sepia wash on wove paper
Support: Paper
Dimensions: Support: 188 mm x 282 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1939.0001.0003
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1939

This is a studio monochrome watercolour of a landscape scene with a road leading into the picture from the foreground left, running alongside a stream to its right, with a clump of trees in the mid-distance right, and a craggy escarpment closing the distance, shrouded in mist and cloud.

Sydney Kitson bought this from Boswell, a Norwich dealer, in February 1927, although, oddly, he does not mention the purchase in any of the annual 'Cotmania' notebooks preserved in the Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery. He generally recorded the Cotmans that he saw in the salesroom or in various collections. His first mention of it comes when lending it to the Oxford Arts Club in 1928 as 'Road to the Hills'. It seems possible that he bought it under that title.

'Road to the Hills' is one of a number of compact watercolours that Cotman made in the later 1830s. Corinne Miller (1992, under no.43) quotes Kitson (Life, 1937, p.349) on the series: 'Here, without the added attraction of colour, Cotman's approach to imaginative landscape can be seen in its final manifestation.' Kitson cites another example 'The Shadowed Stream' at the British Museum (1902,0514.57) and there are several others, such as 'The Sunken Road' at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1951.235.227 : F) and 'A Landscape Composition' in the same collection (NWHCM : 1951.235.227 : F), though none are so boldly or so transcendently treated as 'Road to the Hills'.

As a group, the monochromes represent the climax of a sustained meditation on the essential types of poetic landscape. Cotman arrived at this stage through a series of intensely coloured exercises. Corinne Miller (1992, under no.41) calls these 'a harbour for the soul'. Leeds has two outstanding examples in 'A Wooded Park' (1939.011) and 'Mountain Landscape with Figures' (1924.511). The present example compares well with a coloured composition of a 'Rocky Landscape' at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (P21-1926). That depicts a similar composition but in reverse, but is not so uninhibited as 'Road to the Hills'.

The late monochromes also mark a revival of Cotman's career-long interest in Turner's series of sepia mezzotints called the 'Liber Studiorum' that were published between 1807 and 1817. These were intended as a set of studies of poetic and compositional archetypes, and Cotman referred to them on many occasions in his own work. In 1838 he saw a series of his own softground etchings published by H G Bohn under the title 'Cotman's Liber Studiorum'. That might well have been the stimulation for Cotman to make new works such as this. Despite being in monochrome there is nothing at all gloomy about it. Rather, sublime seriousness, and a place that the artist can take refuge in at will.

The subjects of these 'poesies' are generally recollections of places that he had explored during his life; Norfolk, naturally, but also the remoter scenery of Wales and Yorkshire. It is worth noting in relation to 'Road to the Hills' that in 1838 Cotman exhibited an oil painting under the title of 'Scene of the Foot of the Hamilton Hills, Yorkshire (Pidgley 1975 p.51). At a distance of thirty-five years, since 1803 when he explored the Hambledon Hills from Brandsby Hall, the home of his Yorkshire patrons the Cholmeley family (see Hill 2005 passim), he can be forgiven for misremembering the exact name of the hills. 'Road to the Hills' could easily be a recollection of arriving under Whitestonecliff at the foot of Sutton Bank in the company of Mrs Cholmeley (see Hill 2005, p.56) and it is not at all impossible that the present watercolour was made as a rehearsal for the oil.

David Hill, June 2017