The Cotman Collection | Landscape composition study of two gnarled oak trees in midwinter, with a horse and cart beneath.

John Sell Cotman

Landscape composition study of two gnarled oak trees in midwinter, with a horse and cart beneath.
c. 1833

Landscape composition study of two gnarled oak trees in midwinter, with a horse and cart beneath.
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Associated Person: Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851
Title: Landscape composition study of two gnarled oak trees in midwinter, with a horse and cart beneath.
Date: c. 1833
Object name: Drawing
Medium: Graphite and size on card
Support: A ?carte de visite, the image area coated with size
Dimensions: Sight size: 76 mm x 50 mm
Mount: 273 mm x 190 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1949.0009.0447
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1949

This is a firmly-drawn graphite study of an upright landscape composition with two gaunt trees (or one with twin trucks) on elevated ground silhouetted against the sky. At the base of the tree is a horse and cart, and beyond a figure stands alone on the skyline. Below the tree to the left are several heaps of material. The subject is surrounded by a heavy freehand framing line, and the subject within the frame has been treated with a coat of size. On the verso is written in ink the name of 'Revd T.S.Hughes'.

The trees are stag-headed oaks, denuded of leaves. The horse and cart and the generally bleak, wintery air is reminiscent of Turner's painting of 'Frosty Morning' (Tate, London, N00492) which Cotman would have seen exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1813.

Kitson proposed a date of c.1822 in his mount inscription, and the dark, greasy graphite is reminiscent of that used in drawings connected with soft-ground etchings. However, the firm, not to say manic style might best aligned with a date in the 1830s. It has the appearance of an idea for a painting, or perhaps the memorandum of one. The Leeds collection contains at least one other sketch in a similar style, LEEAG.1949.0009.0648.

In terms of subject-matter, it hearks back to the poetic subjects that Cotman evolved at the beginning of his career in the company of fellow-artists at the Sketching Society. Cotman produced compositions that affect poetic sentiment at intervals throughout his career. Blasted heaths occur with increasing regularity, possibly reflexive of his own scarification by debt. In 1937 Sydney Kitson chose it as an emblem to be gold-blocked onto the blue-cloth front cover of his definitive 'Life of John Sell Cotman'.

The back of the mount carries a long elucidatory note of T.S. Hughes in ink by Sydney Kitson:

'The Rev: Thomas Smart Hughes (1786-1847) Ed: Shrewsbury & St Johns Coll: Cambridge. In 1812 he was travelling tutor to Robert Towneley Parker & pubd Travels in Sicily, Greece and Albania, 2 vols qto 1820 - illustrated from drawings by C R Cockerell. In 1817 he won the Seatonian Jury's [prize for his] poem on 'Balzhazzar's Feast' inspired by John Martin's painting. In 1827 he was the unsuccessful candidate for the headmastership of Rugby School - S Arnold being appointed. In 1823 he married Anna Maria d of the Rev: John Forster of Gt Yarmouth. D.N.B In the 'Collection of Original Portraits', 1825, formed by Dawson Turner, No.31 is a portrait of the Rev: Thomas Smart Hughes by George Robert Lewis (1782-1871) Dated Oct: 1822.'

Hughes seems to have spent the majority of his career in and around Cambridge, but his marriage to a Yarmouth woman, and his portrait in the Turner collection, puts him in Cotman's ambit towards the latter years of Cotman's residence at Yarmouth and moving back to Norwich at the end of 1823.

This drawing is one of eleven mounted on one large sheet ('V') as acquired by Sydney Kitson in 1928. The group comprises of pencil drawings of trees and tree (or sequestered) landscapes, on a variety of papers, and evidently from a variety of sources.Between 1928 and 1937, Kitson mounted them all individually and gave them new numbers for the catalogue drawn up in the latter year [K291-301].

David Hill, October 2017