The Cotman Collection | On the Greta above Devil's Elbow, near Rokeby. Called 'Brignall Banks on the Greta'.

John Sell Cotman

On the Greta above Devil's Elbow, near Rokeby. Called 'Brignall Banks on the Greta'.
c 1805

On the Greta above Devil's Elbow, near Rokeby. Called 'Brignall Banks on the Greta'.
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: On the Greta above Devil's Elbow, near Rokeby. Called 'Brignall Banks on the Greta'.
Date: c 1805
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: White, wove paper
Dimensions: Support: 188 mm x 283 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1952.0005.0047
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Agnes and Norman Lupton, 1952

This is a studio watercolour of a landscape scene, looking over a wooded ravine from an elevated scarp, with three white birds wheeling against dark trees in the lower centre. Beyond the ravine is a view across open fields, yellow with corn, to a clump of dark trees on the horizon right, and blue moorland in the distance left. There is blue sky to the left and a diagonal bank of cloud descending to a grey shower in the distance right.

The composition is derived from an on-the-spot graphite sketch also at Leeds (LEEAG.1952.0005.0048). Sydney Kitson bought the sketch in June 1928, one of several hundred mounted on sheets, and recognising the connection with this watercolour, gave it to Norman Darnton Lupton on 1 August 1928, having first had it photographed for his 'Cotmania' notebook Volume 3 (1927-8) 11 Sept and 22 Sept, 1928.

Kitson knew the watercolour already. His 'Cotmania' notebooks preserved in the Kitson archive at Leeds Art Gallery (Volume 2 for 1927-8, pp.16 ff) record that on 16-19 November 1927 he 'Stayed at Chalmington [the Luptons' Dorset residence at the time] Saw N.D. & Agnes Lupton's Cotmans'. The notebook itemises each example with a sketch drawing and the present watercolour is no.2 in his list, 'On the Greta - Yorkshire. Watercolours c.1807 (or '05)'.

The gift prompted Kitson to refresh his acquaintance with the Lupton collection and the following spring his 'Cotmania' notebook Volume 4 (1929-30) records that on March 29-31 1930: he 'Motored over to Chalmington' to inspect the collection, and concluded 'I thought his 'St Botolph's Abbey' [LEEAG.1952.0005.0051] most attractive: 'The Cows in Water' [LEEAG.1952.0005.0048] delicious and the 'Brignall Banks' one of the great Cotmans'. The Lupton collection was one of the finest private collections of English Watercolours and Drawings of this period, and its bequest to Leeds consolidated Leeds's reputation as one of the leading centres for the study of this kind of material in Britain.

Rudd 1996 identified the viewpoint of the watercolour as above the Devil's Elbow near Eastwood Hall. This is some way downstream of Brignall Banks, the site of its traditional identification. The foreground of the sketch was described by Kitson (Life 1937, pp.83-4) as 'a tangle of unmeaning foliage', but this is perhaps unfair. The indications of foreground situate us on the edge of the scarp, and give a sense of real scale and presence in the place. It conveys a sense of Cotman walking to and standing on this ground. The finished watercolour removes this to give unprotected exposure to the depths, and although there is a vestigial foreground to either side, we are put into much more immediate contact with a sense of falling or flight. It is a powerfully poetic device.

From this angle we might see the composition as a meditation upon escaping our earthbound condition. Certainly dramatic contact with space is indeed a feature of being at the site. When one breasts the scarp going up to Eastwood Hall there are places where the river is as much as one hundred feet vertically below.

It is extraordinary, however, that the composition has no conventional centre of focus. Even in the finished watercolour many viewers will think the middle distance to be 'a tangle of unmeaning foliage', and that the picture offers practically nothing else. There is only a glimpse of fields beyond, a formless silhouette in the distance right and a sky with a few abstract bands of blue and grey. It would come as absolutely no surprise to such a viewer that Cotman achieved little but mystification and bemusement in his audience. Only a few of these subjects appear ever to have found buyers.

The radicalism of Cotman's approach gradually, but inexorably found an audience. Kitson seems to have almost surprised himself by coming to the conclusion in 1929 that this was one of the great Cotmans. Since realisation dawned, Brignall Banks has been one of the most frequently exhibited of all Cotman's watercolours.

The survival of both on-the-spot sketch and finished watercolour is a relatively rare event in Cotman's oeuvre. Brignall Banks can be taken as completely diagnostic of Cotman's studio style in the period immediately after 1805.

Cotman exhibited an 'On the River Greta, Yorkshire' at the Royal Academy in 1806, no.524, but the present watercolour seems too small to have been an Academy exhibit, and also an 'On the Greta River, Yorkshire; Sketch from Nature' at the 1808 Norwich Society of Artists, no.143, but the present watercolour is certainly not a study from nature.

It may be noted here that the sky in a watercolour of Heath Hall (private collection) is very close to that here, This watercolour was brought into Leeds Art Gallery for inspection in 2004 and appeared to Corinne Miller and myself more likely to be by John Varley than by Cotman. If it is not by Cotman, however, the similarity of the skies wants some explanation.

David Hill, November 2017