The Cotman Collection | The Harvest Field - A Pastoral

John Sell Cotman

The Harvest Field - A Pastoral
c. 1810

The Harvest Field - A Pastoral
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Associated Person: Nicolas Poussin, French, 1594 - 1665
Title: The Harvest Field - A Pastoral
Date: c. 1810
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: Heavyweight, pulpy, pressed, white watercolour paper
Dimensions: Support: 528 mm x 697 mm
Frame: 730 mm x 888 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1939.0001.0006
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1939

This is a large exhibition watercolour of a landscape composition showing a partly-cut harvest field sloping away towards a couple of old oaks to the left and a farmhouse to the right. In the middle distance is a swathe of mature woodland in full leaf, giving the glimpse of a Palladian house in the centre distance, backed by an extensive plain leading to blue hills. In the left foreground is a group of seated figures, picnicking, with in the centre foreground a figure standing with a staff evidently in the act of throwing something for two greyhounds close by. Beyond that corn stooks stand ready for collection, a group of reapers are working and the cut row leads down to a heavily loaded harvest wagon.

Kitson went to see this picture on May 1 1928 when he reported in his 'Cotmania' notebook Volume 2 (1927-8): 'Visited the Misses Bulwer at Dalling, near Uckfield, Sussex. Saw their Cotman drawings'. These had been collected by Cotman's one-time pupil, later friend and patron, the Revd J Bulwer, and constituted one of the most important groups of works still in the possession of their original family. Kitson listed a dozen works that he was shown, and several documents in their possession. At the top of the list was '(1) 'The Harvest Field - a pastoral' Watercolour Exhd Norwich 1810, Norwich 1888, Tate Gallery 1922. 21 x 27 3/4 in'.

He returned on 21 May 1929 and reported in his 'Cotmania' notebook for that year (Volume 3) that he 'Stayed with the Misses Bulwer at Dalling near Uckfield [in East Sussex]. On the page opposite is a careful pencil sketch by Kitson of the centre part of the composition, focusing on the buildings, and presumably made with a view to topographical identification. On the drawing itself he notes (bottom left) '5 seated figures/ draperies and utensils' and centre, 'standing figure & 2 greyhounds'. Below the drawing his made some notes to himself 'The Harvest Field watercolour - 21 x 27 3/4./ Exh Norwich 1810./ Coll: The Misses Bulwer./ ?Is the house Rokeby Park/ ?is the central figure Morritt/ ?One of the group on left JSC'.

Kitson followed up his interest in the topography later in the year when his Cotmania notebook, volume 4, records that on 17 September 1829 he 'Went on [from Thonock, Lincolnshire, Sir Hickman Bacon's house] to Rokeby. Lovely weather. Tried to identify the 'Harvest Field' - Major M[orritt] felt it was 'Rokeby atmosphere' but could not identify the spot. I thought it might be the other side of the Greta to the house, N.E. of the house. The small 'Church' on the r is puzzling: there was a ch. at the meeting of the waters, but it seems to have been pulled down before the end of the 18th century'.

Strangely, perhaps, there is no mention in the 'Cotmania' notebooks of Kitson's purchase of the picture in November 1930. This is doubly disappointing became it was clearly an object of monumental importance to Kitson's study of Cotman: his largest watercolour, and the most ambitious essay in the grand manner of his early career. It is hard to imagine that he could have resisted sharing his excitement with his correspondents, particularly other Cotmaniacs such as Paul Oppe and L.G.Duke with whom he often had to compete.

A couple of years later he managed to acquire a pencil study for two of the figures in the composition. His 'Cotmania' notebook Volume 8, 1931-32, for 27 Oct 1932: records 'Mr & Mrs John Sell Cotman [descendants] came to lunch - they brought back ten family portraits I lent them, also sheet of 18 sketches, including the study for 2 of the figures in my 'Harvest Field' and 2 pencil portraits (1) a Man, 1819. & (2) a man, 1828 - which I swapped for the 'J J Cotman, Mch 1840' portrait of a girl, which JSC [says] is Miss Cooper afterwards Mrs J J C'.

The specific figure study was part of Kitson's Bequest to Leeds and survives in the collection (LEEAG.1949.0009.0535). Kitson's 1937 list of the collection described the pencil as (no.723) 'The two figures are slightly smaller than in the W.C. especially in height. The drawing has been traced thro' and is spotted ? with a coating of size, on the back. On a sheet with 17 others; '106' in blue chk. On back. Ex coll J.S.Cotman (Reading) exchanged Oct: 1932. The study has recently been recognised as a copy of two figures in a painting by Nicholas Poussin, 'Landscape with a Roman Road' at Dulwich College picture gallery. Kitson almost certainly copied them from an engraving, and then traced them for inclusion in the composition of 'The Harvest Field'.

Kitson gave the picture some prominence in his 'Life of Cotman' published in 1937 (p.123): 'The largest in size of all the large watercolours made during this time when Cotman was aiming to produce pictures of sufficient weight and importance to vie with oil paintings is 'The Harvest Field, a Pastoral'. It was exhibited at Norwich in 1810. Here Cotman has gone back to Yorkshire for his inspiration. In the middle distance the trees slope down to the ravine in which the Greta runs. The mansion of Rokeby Park is beyond, backed by the blue Cleveland Hills and a dim grey sky. The harvest field in the foreground is peopled by figures which might have been derived from drawings by Joshua Cristall; some of them are seated on the stubble among the remains of a picnic, while the central figure representing, perhaps, Squire Morritt himself, is standing in the centre and urges a couple of greyhounds to chase a hare. One of the figures in the picnic party appears to be a self-portrait of the artist. Behind, reapers are at work with their sickles, and the sheaves are loaded into a great, six-horsed waggon; while the trees bow solemnly to each other from either side of the picture. The 'elegant pastoral' through which England was passing at the time, as reflected in Turner's 'Liber Studiorum', is present in this picture - mingled with the dateless quality of the Greta drawings. In this picture he made the greatest effort to catch the popular taste, but it remained unsold for more than fifty years.'

Kitson was only half-correct about the topography. Hill 2005 observes the general similarity of the landscape to Cotman's 1805 watercolour of 'Barnard Castle from Towler Hill' (also Leeds Art Gallery, 1938.010). Cotman took that composition, but here developed it into an imaginary scene. The house bears no specific resemblance to Rokeby, and Hill 2005 suggests that it is a synthesis of his wider experience of Yorkshire Arcadia, including Rokeby Hall, the home of the Morritts with whom he stayed in 1805, Hovingham Hall, the seat of the Worsley family who bought several works from him (including the 'Barnard Castle from Towler Hill') and even Harewood House, near Leeds, home of the Lascelles family, with whom Cotman has some association. The scene of harvest would also be a recollection of the high summer season of his visits to Yorkshire, but no specific sketches of harvest subjects are known from this time. Kitson's specific identifications of some of the figures, though not implausible, must remain speculative. J.B.S. Morritt, his host at Rokeby in 1805 was in his early thirties at the time of Cotman's visit, and the figure in the centre foreground would be commensurate with such an age. One might also look for Cotman's companion at Rokeby, and friend and host at Brandsby, Francis Cholmeley, who was a year younger than Cotman, and twenty-two in 1805. Rather than the seated figure at the left being a self-portrait, perhaps this might instead be Francis Cholmeley, and the whole composition an homage to the memory of those pleasant times in Cotman's life.

Hill 2005 seems to have been the first to notice the relationship of Barnard Castle from Towler Hill' to the present composition. Whilst drafting these entries during 2017 I have come to entertain a slightly more radical suggestion. 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 to answer to Cotman's exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1806. 'Distant View of Barnard Castle etc' (qv) is far too unfinished to have been shown in that context.

Kitson (Life 1937, p.95) says very plausibly; '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 simply altered the unsold exhibit.

In his comments in the 'Life', Kitson seems to have been more than a little ambivalent about this picture. He says that the picture reflects a fashion for the 'elegant pastoral' through which England was passing at the town, as if it were evidence of Cotman suffering from some unpleasant but short-lived illness. He also accuses Cotman of pandering 'the greatest effort to catch the popular taste' and indeed it is Kitson's more general argument that Cotman was periodically prone to court popularity, always at the expense of his aesthetic quality. We need, however, I think, to see the 'The Harvest Field' in a more positive light. The fact that he titled it 'A Pastoral', signals an ambition to align it with deep poetic and literary history and to claim comparison with historic utterances in that tradition. Straight away he signals an aesthetic not a topographic context, and in his manner of painting, allusive figures, rich and sonorous colour and tonality, he signals an idealist rather than a naturalistic context.

In 'Cotman and the North', my general argument was that in through his Yorkshire experience, Cotman calculatedly abandoned the theatrical materialist practice of (say) Byron and Turner, for a more simplified and abstracted practice allied more with Wordsworth and Girtin. The 'Harvest Field' represents the culminating and major statement of the first phase of his work in that aesthetic field. The fact that he retained it to his death, even though at several stages of his career he offloaded work without any apparent sentiment, suggests that he clung onto it regardless. Cotman's choice of aesthetic path was understood by few at the time, but then nor was Wordsworth's in the first decade of the century. Wordsworth broke through eventually to national and international success. The fact that when 'Harvest Field' was finally offered for sale in 1861, it did not elicit a single bid, says nothing about its importance or quality. When Kitson saw it at the Misses Bulwer in 1929, his visual response - a careful, full-page study - the largest in all his notebooks - and the sense of it distilling the essence of a very special kind of arcadia - and essentially in 'lovely weather' - tells its own story of its speaking to him of matters that did not quite recognise in his prose.

David Hill, June 2017