The Cotman Collection | A crossroads in a lightly wooded landscape, possibly at Whitlingham, Norfolk? Called 'A Wooded Park'

John Sell Cotman

A crossroads in a lightly wooded landscape, possibly at Whitlingham, Norfolk? Called 'A Wooded Park'
c. 1835

A crossroads in a lightly wooded landscape, possibly at Whitlingham, Norfolk? Called 'A Wooded Park'
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: A crossroads in a lightly wooded landscape, possibly at Whitlingham, Norfolk? Called 'A Wooded Park'
Date: c. 1835
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: White, wove paper
Dimensions: Support: 160 mm x 235 mm
Reference: LEEAG.PA.1939.0001.0011
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1939

This is a studio watercolour of a landscape composition showing a crossroads in the foreground with mature trees dotted across the scene, with a gap to the right, through which tress are silhouetted blue against yellow light.

This is a version of a composition also developed in an oil in a private collection (Sotheby's 30 November 2000 no. 133) and a watercolour at the British Museum (1902,0514.35). The present version is less than a quarter the size of either of the others and the relationship between the various versions wants consideration.

This is one of a number of generally small later watercolours painted in saturated colours mixed with a paste medium, Corinne Miller in Leeds 1992 (no. 41) calls such things 'a harbour for the soul', and together they may be considered some of the most intensely poetic work of Cotman's career.

Of the three versions, that at the British Museum appears to be definitive, having the greatest variety of colour and stormy effect at the top left. The oil version follows the British Museum composition closely, and whilst taking a generally more restrained approach to effect, nonetheless considerably refines the light-suffused edges of the trees towards the right. The Leeds version crops the composition at the left to make a tighter arrangement of the main elements. It also gives greater animation and frothiness to the foliage, especially across the middle distance. Although the smallest work in the sequence it does appear to be the last, and may have been painted (along with the other 'harbours for the soul') after Cotman moved to London in 1834 to take up his position as Master of Drawing at King's College School. What might have been the context for their production is not certain, but Cotman participated in a number of soirees with prominent watercolourists including John Frederick Lewis, George and Edward Cooke, James Stark, David Roberts and David Cox, at which the artists showed new work and work in progress. It is possible that watercolours such as this found their first public at one of those meetings.

The British Museum watercolour is called 'At Whitlingham'. It is not clear on what authority or evidence the identification rests. Miklos Rajnai appears uncertain in the V&A 1982 catalogue under no. 107, where he muses 'Whether it is the site indicated by the title or not, Cotman seems to have taken a liking to the composition.'. The definite title of 'At Whitlingham' appears in the Sotheby's 2000 catalogue, presumably by extension from the British Museum watercolour, which was exhibited in 1982 as 'At Whitlingham'.

Whitlingham is a lost village on the banks of the Yare not far east of Norwich. It is now marked only by its ruined church on a low eminence overlooking the river, and is today rather imposed upon by the busy A47 road. Downstream under the flyover there is Whitlingham Marshes backed by Norwich sewerage treatment works. The landscape in this painting is a sandy heathland at a crossroads of tracks and is not what one would most readily associate with the area of Whitlingham, though the higher ground crossed by the highway might originally have been of this character. Cotman did make various compositions that are also called Whitlingham, generally woodland subjects, and mostly more appropriately in a marshy or riverine setting.

The online catalogue of the British Museum notes: 'There is a rough chalk sketch of the composition in the Ashmolean Museum, together with a larger version, which the compiler of the 1982 exhibition (i.e. Miklos Rajnai in the catalogue of the Cotman bicentenary exhibition at the V&A) believed may be the work of Joseph Geldart. Finally, there is a watercolour version at Leeds. This watercolour has affinities with 'The wind in the trees' in Norwich Castle Museum, a work based on an oil of the mid 1820s, but datable on stylistic grounds, and through the paper, watermarked 1831, to the early 1830s. The textured handling has more in common with oil technique than with watercolour, and reflects Cotman's other experiments with opaque media around this period'. Rajnai does not give specific references to the Ashmolean drawings that he has in mind.

The Leeds collection contains a pencil drawing of a similar subject, LEEAG.1949.0009.0643. The relation is by no means exact, but close enough for both to depict the same place, perhaps looking in opposite directions.

David Hill, June 2017