The Cotman Collection | Recto: St Benet's Abbey, Norfolk. Called 'Windmill and Figure'; Verso: Some arithmetic

John Sell Cotman

St Benet's Abbey, Norfolk. Called 'Windmill and Figure'
c. 1831

Recto: St Benet's Abbey, Norfolk. Called 'Windmill and Figure';
Verso: Some arithmetic
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Recto: St Benet's Abbey, Norfolk. Called 'Windmill and Figure';
Verso: Some arithmetic
Date: c. 1831
Object name: Drawing
Medium: Graphite on wove paper
Support: White wove paper, watermarked 'W.S./1821' (the letters partly trimmed away).
Dimensions: Sight size: 52 mm x 68 mm
Mount: 190 mm x 266 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1949.0009.0391
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1949

This is a small, quick study of a composition featuring a tower windmill with its sails facing right, and its steering mechanism on a stage to the left. There are two figures in the left foreground, evidently seated by a stream. Towering clouds fill the sky to the left, and there is one dark tree at the base of the windmill to the right, with another, lighter toned, immediately beyond. The whole is surrounded by a freehand framing line. Kitson's 1937 catalogue notes some arithmetic on the verso.

Kitson's 1937 catalogue and subsequent commentators call this 'Windmill and Figure', but Moore 1982 identifies it as St Benet's Abbey on the Bure in Norfolk in a footnote to the discussion of a major Cotman watercolour of 'St Benet's Abbey' dated 1831 at the Norwich Castle Museum (1947.217.21: F). Moore itemises the present sketch amongst 'Other sketches of St Benet's Abbey by Cotman.. Although none relates directly to this composition'.

The windmill built on top of the former gateway of St Benet's Abbey proved a recurrent motif for Cotman. One his finest treatments is an etching that he issued in 1813 as part of his series 'Archtiectural Antiquities of Norfolk'. Another major treatment is the watercolour dated 1831 at the Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM: 1947.217.211).

In every version prior to the 1831 watercolour the sails of the mill are angled to the left, but this sketch compares closely to the composition of the 1831 watercolour. The present drawing shares the precise profile of the windmill, but the correspondence is strong even beyond that: The watercolour is one of Cotman's most brilliant conceptions, especially in the way that it sets its subject against an astonishing sky. The present sketch has the entire germ of that conception, even down to the stream and figures in the foreground. The correspondences are fairly systematic, but not exact, and it is a moot point as to whether the present sketch can be considered as a preparatory study, or a study after the fact of the watercolour.

The latter may be the case, for the one respect in which the present drawing differs from the 1831 watercolour is in the introduction of two trees at the base of the mill in place of the remains of the abbey gatehouse.

This innovation is followed in an oil painting also at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM: 1951.235.109). This is a fine work, taking an idiosyncratic approach to the topography (the 1831 watercolour is more readily identifiable and there are no trees at the base as here) to the extent that that the attribution has been doubted. The connection being made here does suggest the oil's authenticity. The composition of the oil is repeated in an untraced watercolour documented in a photograph at the Witt Library, as being sometime with the Fine Art Society under the title of 'The Windmill'.

It seems possible that the present drawing is a creative revisit to the composition of the 1831 watercolour. Its execution is rapid and firm in soft greasy graphite, most typical of drawings that Cotman made in connection with soft-ground etchings. He tended to throw these off in some number, and part of the process was to abstract poetic reverie from particularity. There is a powerful current of such material flowing out of the last decade of his life, much of it small and undemonstrative, and essentially introspective rather than market-facing. The 'finished' results of this process are as often found in oils as watercolours. During the later 1830s he worried that he had to educate his son Miles Edmund to paint in oils for pleasure as he did, rather than as a labour.

This drawing is one of thirteen mounted on one large sheet ('XXXVIII') as acquired by Sydney Kitson in 1928. The group comprises of a variety of landscape subjects, evidently from a wide variety sources. It is hard to see any specific connection between them, or whether there might have been some project in mind; they are on a variety of papers, and appear to originate from different periods and campaigns. Sometime between 1928 and 1937, Kitson mounted them all individually and gave them new numbers for the catalogue drawn up in the latter year [K565-574b, 599]. Kitson's 1937 catalogue includes two different sheets numbered XXXVIII 10 - 574a and 599; the reasons for this are unclear.

David Hill, October 2017