The Cotman Collection | West Front of St Botolph's Priory, Colchester, Essex

John Sell Cotman

West Front of St Botolph's Priory, Colchester, Essex

West Front of St Botolph's Priory, Colchester, Essex
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: West Front of St Botolph's Priory, Colchester, Essex
Date: 1804
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: Heavyweight, white wove paper, mounted (?by Cotman) on buff card, decorated with a bistre line, reddened somewhat within the margin of an old matte.
Dimensions: Image: 123 mm x 189 mm
Paper: 123 mm x 189 mm
Mount: 380 mm x 506 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1952.0005.0051
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Agnes and Norman Lupton, 1952

This is a small graphite and watercolour study of the west front of a large Norman church, with an ornate central portal, with two rows of arcades above picked out in red brick. The remains of the north nave arcade are seen to the left. There is a rough lean-to shed with a ?thatched roof to the right of the portal, and mature trees in full leaf beyond the facade to the right. The drawing is inscribed in graphite on the verso, possibly by the artist, 'St Botolph's Priory/ Colchester', and in graphite top left by an unknown hand with the Palser Gallery stock number, '18162'. There are other inscriptions, (i) below title inscription in graphite by unknown hand '14 x 11 1/2' and (ii) along lower edge, right '1952.5.51'.

The subject is the west front of St Botolph's Priory at Colchester in Essex. The church was built as an Augustinian Priory and completed about 1150, and is particularly attractive for its construction of lighter stone (limestone and flint) with red brick detailing. Much of the brick and stone is Roman and recycled from the ruins of buildings from the Roman town of Colchester. The remains survive almost exactly as recorded here, but Cotman's view is somewhat hampered by the growth of several large yew trees. Sydney Kitson (Life, 1937, p.67) suggested that Cotman called in at St Botolph's on his way from London in 1804 to stay with Dawson Turner and his family at Covehithe on the Suffolk Coast. Miklos Rajnai (Norwich castle Museum, 1979, under no.36) points to a lack of evidence for this, and suggests that Cotman could have paused in Colchester on any of his journeys between Norwich and London.

The present drawing is related to a fine studio watercolour of c.1807 at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM: 1947.217.128) (cdb743) and an etching of 1811, a copy of which is also in the Leeds collection (Leeds 1949.712). Miklos Rajnai (Norwich 1979 under no.36) cites a number of related pencil studies. One was with Oscar & Peter Johnson in 1968 (no.68) and known through a photograph at the Witt Library, London. Another is at the Norwich Castle Museum and is dated or numbered 1825 (NWHCM: 1951.235.186: F). Another, described by Rajnai as a crude copy in watercolour but inscribed 'J S Cotman' was sold by Christie's, London, 22 March 1966, lot 71. Rajnai also mentions a drawing in 'bistre and indian ink' that was sold in Cotman's posthumous sale at Christie's 17-18 May 1843, second day, lot. 177 (bought by Lee for three shillings). The last might be identifiable with the Oscar and Peter Johnson drawing.

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 the time] Saw N.D. & Agnes Lupton's Cotmans'. The notebook itemises each example with a sketch drawing and the present watercolour is no.3 in his list, 'St Botolph's Priory, Essex. Watercolour c.1810. (Study of lighting for R J Colman's drawing.) 5 1/4 x 7 1/2.'

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's suggestion of a visit to Colchester in 1804 is plausible. Colchester is half way on the direct route from London to Covehithe, and it is a subject that would have interested and impressed Dawson Turner, and stylistically this work cannot be any earlier than 1804. Rajnai 1979 is sure, however, that the Norwich watercolour must be identifiable with a work exhibited at the Norwich Society of Artists in 1807 as no.140 'St Botolph's Priory, Colchester', and in the lack of any other candidates that does seem very likely. Rajnai 1979 hesitates a little over the date of the Norwich watercolour, but his date of 1804-5 is convincing.

Kitson suggested in his 'Cotmania' notebook listing of 1927 that the present study was a study for the lighting of the finished watercolour. This may be the case, but on the other hand it seems possible that it could have been painted direct from nature. A date of 1804 seems proved by comparison with a watercolour of 'Covehithe Church' at the British Museum (1859,0528.120). This is certainly dateable to that year, and although larger and more composed, is exactly comparable to the present watercolour in terms of colour and handling.

A number of drawings in the Leeds collection have numbers inscribed on the verso. Those in this form 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.

David Hill, November 2017