The Cotman Collection | Recto: An Effect of Parhelion seen from Hunstanton Lighthouse on July 6 1816; Verso: Part of a list of prospective subjects for a publication.

John Sell Cotman

An Effect of Parhelion seen from Hunstanton Lighthouse on July 6 1816

Recto: An Effect of Parhelion seen from Hunstanton Lighthouse on July 6 1816; Verso: Part of a list of prospective subjects for a publication.
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Recto: An Effect of Parhelion seen from Hunstanton Lighthouse on July 6 1816;
Verso: Part of a list of prospective subjects for a publication.
Date: 1818
Object name: Drawing
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: Off-white wove paper
Dimensions: Support: 300 mm x 213 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1949.0009.0640
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1949

This is a careful studio drawing in graphite and monochrome washes of a spectacular effect of false suns and prismatic rings. The viewpoint is near St Edmund's Chapel and Hunstanton Lighthouse, looking west to the distant spire of Boston Church. Cotman has signed and dated the drawing in graphite, lower right, 'J.S.Cotman 1818' and inscribed it at the upper right [presumably some time later] with the number '2050' for his series of drawings kept for copying in his teaching portfolios. In the lower margin of the drawing he made an extensive description of the circumstances: '1 2 3 [immediately below the edge of the drawing] A Representation of that curious & beautiful phenomenon ye Parhelion/ as seen from the cliffs at Hunstanton in Norfolk by the Reverend/ Edward Edwards & family & J S Cotman, July 6, 1816 [Kitson gives 1815 - see below] from 7 to 7 1/2 PM/ The objects above the figures 1, 2, & 3 are St Edmunds Chapel, Boston/ Church tower & the Lighthouse, The Vessels in the offing/..' The inscription has been transcribed in graphite on the verso [incidentally also reading the date as 1816] with the note, 'Copied by H A Bulwer 14th March 1905'. Also on the verso by Cotman in graphite is part of a list of subjects; [40] East end - exterior/ [41] [ditto] - interior/ [42] N. side of Choir upper comt[?] / [43] Arches under ye Central Tower/ [44] South transept / [45] Interior of the Nave looking West/ [46] South side of nave, exterior/ [47] Crypt/ [48] Capitals/ 49 Great Western Doorway/ [50] General View of/ [51] ground plan of ye crypt'

Kitson's 1937 catalogue identifies another version of the composition in an album of extra-illustrations to R Blomefield's 'History of Norfolk' compiled by Cotman's Yarmouth patron Dawson Turner and now at the British Museum. Kitson notes that the explicatory inscription in the B.M. drawing is more extensive, continuing from 'The vessels in the offing' with '.. are making for the harbour of Lynn.. The centre of the upper circle was in the zenith and each was strongly charged with prismatic colours, the order of them being reversed alternatively'.

Parhelion effects (colloquially known as 'Sun Dogs') are caused by sunlight refracting from ice crystals in the stratosphere. There are several related phenomena, and variations of one kind or another occur occasionally, but rarely can anyone have witnessed such a complete array of effects as recorded here. The parhelion itself is the effect of two false suns seen approximately 22 degrees left and right of the sun itself, and linked by a halo. Beyond that is a rare Supralateral arc, and above that, upside down, is a complete Kern arc, that is a circumzenithal circle. This was first described in 1895 (nearly eighty years after Cotman's drawing) and is reportedly rare, being documented since on only six occasions. For further information start at, and proceed from there. A specialist might refine the list of effects depicted by Cotman, but suffice it to say few if any of the extraordinary photographs that may be found on the internet today exceed Cotman's drawing for variety.

Kitson's 1937 catalogue reads the date of the event as 6 July 1815, but H A Bulwer in the transcript on the verso reads it as 1816. 1815 was preferred by Corinne Miller in Leeds 1992, but subsequent commentators have inclined to 1816. The divergence may be explained by the fact that Kitson peculiarly confused his own version with that at the British Museum. His 'Life of John Sell Cotman', 1937 reproduces the British Museum version as pl.71, but his list of illustrations (p.xiv) wrongly claims that the image is of the version in his own collection. Close examination of his reproduction shows that the inscription is, indeed that as credited to the British Museum version, but not precisely as it appears in the present example that he owned. In fact, apart from being longer, the British Museum inscription differs in several small respects in the parts that the two works have in common. Most crucially in the matter of the date. The British Museum version clearly gives it as July 6, 1815. Kitson does not seem to have noticed the discrepancies, and his 1937 catalogue transcribes the inscription verbatim from the British Museum version rather than his own.

Apart from the textual variations, there are many subtle differences between the two images. The handwriting on the British Museum version is not Cotman's. The draftsmanship also differs slightly, and the British Museum version clarifies the effect and renders it more geometric. Nor is the British Museum version signed or dated, neither does it carry a Cotman drawing school portfolio series number. It may be surmised that the British Museum version was made as a replica for Dawson Turner and his family on the basis of the present drawing. The inscription on the British Museum version is probably by a member of the Dawson Turner family, and in the process the original date of 1816 was mis-read.

In passing it might be observed that the British Museum version shows that still more rare effects were part of the phenomenon, including a distinct tangential arc and a Parry arc. It may be that such a spectacular effect was reported in the papers, and further investigation might yield results, but 1816 seems to the present author the best reading, and the summer of 1816 is famous in meteorological history for its climatic disturbances following the eruption of the volcano of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies in 1815.

Hunstanton is a popular resort facing The Wash on the north-west coast of North Norfolk. Cotman's viewpoint remains readily recognisable looking west from Lighthouse Lane at the northern edge of the town. The lighthouse shown by Cotman was replaced by the present structure in 1840, and today there is somewhat less to see of St Edmund's Chapel. The tower of Boston Church, however, may still be picked out when clear, 35 km across the water.

The Reverend Edward Edwards (c.1766-c.1850) whom Cotman mentions as his companion was the dedicatee of Cotman's etching of 'The interior of Red Mount Chapel, King's Lynn, Norfolk, looking south-east.', etched by Cotman in 1812 as plate 15 of his 'Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk'. He was rector of the valuable parish of St Edmund's, North Lynn, and latterly Clerk of King's Lynn, and an enthusiastic artist in his own right. A number of his sketches were engraved in the period 1800-1833; see D Higgins, 'The Antiquities of King's Lynn: From the Sketch Books of the Rev Edward Edwards', 2001.

The inscription on the verso appears to document an extensive series of images of a major church building. The last three items are numbered 49, 50 and 51. Given that all the subjects appear to be of the same building, it is frustrating that it is not named. We can see, however that it has a 'Great Western Doorway' and central tower. Given the date of the drawing on verso, this might be a list of sketches of a Normandy church. He made his first tour of Normandy in 1817, and a second in 1818.

The drawing is clearly signed and dated 1818, although the occasion for it is unclear. The form of signature, and the combination of graphite with monochrome wash is most typical of a large number of drawings that Cotman made to be engraved for 'Excursions in Norfolk' published in two volumes in 1818 and 1819. The Leeds collection has a drawing that was engraved in that series, 'Blakeney Church and Wiveton Hall', also signed and dated 1818 (LEEAG.1949.0009.0650).

This drawing is one of a group of eighteen that Kitson bought from Henry Alan Bulwer in 1934. These had descended from Cotman's pupil, later friend and patron, the Reverend James Bulwer (1794-1879). He was a supporter of Cotman throughout his career, and bought work both directly from the artist and indirectly. His biggest single acquisition, however, was in 1818 when he bought a collection of 'Three Hundred original Drawings and Sketches in Norfolk, calculated to illustrate Blomefield's History of that County'. This collection generally consisted of high-quality pencil drawings and watercolours (some exceptionally so), but most of the drawings in the group bought in 1934 much that same stature as the hundreds of sketches that Kitson bought as mounted on larger sheets by the artist; and it may be that Bulwer, who lived for thirty-five years after Cotman's death, and was a patron of both sons Miles Edmund and John Joseph, acquired one or more similar sheets of sketches from the posthumous sales of Cotman's reference material.

David Hill, November 2017