John Sell Cotman

Cows standing in shallow water below the bridge at Bridgnorth. Called 'Bridge and Cows', and 'Brecon Bridge'
c. 1806


Cows standing in shallow water below the bridge at Bridgnorth. Called 'Bridge and Cows', and 'Brecon Bridge'
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Cows standing in shallow water below the bridge at Bridgnorth. Called 'Bridge and Cows', and 'Brecon Bridge'
Date: c. 1806
Object name: Watercolur
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: White, wove paper, mounted (?by Cotman) on a thick dark cream brown backing sheet of card, somewhat reddened, decorated with a double bistre line.
Dimensions: Support: 171 mm x 275 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1952.0005.0049
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Agnes and Norman Lupton, 1952

This is a monochrome studio watercolour of a landscape subject of four cows standing in the shallows of a river beneath two arches of a medieval bridge with large cutwaters. To the right a flight of steps ascends besides cottages from the riverside to the road where a solitary figure stands light against dark trees behind. Hills and trees slope towards the river beyond the bridge. The watercolour as found March 2017 was stuck down on a backing sheet, possibly by Cotman, and decorated with a washline mount. The drawing is signed lower right by the artist in ink 'J.S.Cotman' and on the verso inscribed by an unknown hand with a number '16342'.

A number of drawings in the Leeds collection have such numbers. These have been identified by Timothy Wilcox as the stock numbers of the Palser Gallery, London, who were one of the leading dealers in Cotman drawings in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A systematic collation of the numbers might prove useful.

Sydney Kitson much admired this watercolour. 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 that time] Saw N.D. & Agnes Lupton's Cotmans'. The notebook itemises each example with a sketch drawing and the present watercolour is no.1 in his list, 'Cows watering, monochrome. c.1804. signed in ink. 7 x 10 3/4.'

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.

Kitson knew the subject only as 'Cows Watering', and the Leeds Concise catalogue (1976 et seq) lists it as 'Cattle and Bridge', but Victor Rienaecker (1953, pl.14) reproduced it as 'Brecon Bridge'. More recently Jeremy Yates has identified the subject as Bridgnorth in an unpublished essay 'The Narrow Road to the North' kindly made available to Leeds in draft form, and Timothy Wilcox suggested the same subject in conversation on 6 March 2017.

The bridge is now rebuilt, but comparison with depictions from Cotman's period confirms the identification. Cotman visited Bridgnorth on his tours to Wales in 1800 and 1802 and the British Museum has a watercolour by Cotman dated 1800 that shows the view from the north (upstream) side, with the two eastern arches and the old gatehouse build on its large pier with another arch to the right. The present subject appears to depict the same two easternmost arches, but as seen from the south (downstream) side.

Bridgnorth was a popular subject with artists of the Romantic generation. Turner sketched more or less the same view as Cotman's British Museum watercolour in 1794 (Tate, D00227, Turner Bequest XIX 19), and Thomas Girtin painted an almost definitive view of the bridge in about 1800 (British Museum, 1849,0609.75). The British Museum also has a watercolour by Hugh O'Neill showing the bridge from a similar southern aspect to the Girtin (1866,1114.680), and both are taken from almost exactly the same viewpoint as the present watercolour.

The watercolour by O'Neill certainly confirms the subject of the present composition to be Bridgnorth. The same steps can be seen rising by the side of cottages, and the same two easternmost arches of the bridge. The comparison, however, shows how radical is Cotman's treatment of the subject. He crops the composition to the left at exactly the point at which the truly distinctive feature of the bridge, i.e. the gatehouse, would become visible. It is one of many works by him in the period after 1804-5 in which he takes a deliberately obtuse approach to a site. Standing on a similar viewpoint, Girtin and O'Neill have managed to include not only the full width of the bridge but also the church of Bridgnorth into the bargain. Cotman might well have seen Girtin's watercolour, and it would have been a sensible conclusion not to compete directly with such a masterpiece.

The record card for the watercolour at Leeds Art Gallery records that Harold Isherwood Kay, then assistant keeper at the National Gallery and working towards a catalogue raisonnee of Cotman's works (never published) wrote to the Luptons on 29 October 1931 to propose a date of c.1803-4 for the present watercolour. The washes, however, are exquisitely delicate in their application, more typical of his approach in the year or so after he moved in 1806 from London to Norwich. There are many monochrome watercolours from this period. Leeds has another superb example, 'Lake at Trentham Park, Staffordshire' (LEEAG.1952.0005.0050) that may be securely dated to 1806.

David Hill, November 2017

I am grateful to Jeremy Yates and Timothy Wilcox for sharing their observations on this subject.