The Cotman Collection | A Scholar in his Study; Called 'Study for The Spanish Student'

John Sell Cotman

A Scholar in his Study
c. 1833

A Scholar in his Study; Called 'Study for The Spanish Student'
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: A Scholar in his Study; Called 'Study for The Spanish Student'
Date: c. 1833
Object name: Drawing
Medium: Graphite on wove paper
Support: Thin paper
Dimensions: Support: 206 mm x 182 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1949.0009.0609
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1949

This is a confidently-drawn and sensitive, but now rather faint, graphite study for a composition of a Romantic, historical, interior. There is a finely-dressed scholar in the left foreground seated facing right at a large table, reading in a large book on a stand and writing with a stylus in his right hand. Before him on the table are two globes in stands, and besides him a wooden chest on which are laid several large old scrolls, and against which is an open illuminated manuscript. Directly beyond him is a folding screen and behind a plinth on which stands an object, possibly a sculpture, covered in drapes. A finely-dressed female figure, in what appears to be sixteenth-century costume, with a large-collared coat and an elaborate quilted hat, stands to the right, looking around the screen as if she has just entered the room. The subject is surrounded by a fine, ruled framing line.

Kitson's 1937 catalogue identifies this as a sketch for an etching by Cotman that Kitson calls 'The Spanish Student'. Leeds has two copies of the print (LEEAG.1949.0009.0775 and LEEAG.1945.0018.0027). This was published posthumously by the Norwich publisher Charles Muskett in 1846 in an edition of 'Eight Original Etchings by the late John Sell Cotman'. Kitson, Life, 1937, pp.130-1 records that a copy of this from the collection of Cotman's Yarmouth patron Dawson Turner, was annotated to the effect that all the etchings in the series were made in 1833.

Some of the etchings in the series are particularly Rembrandtian in character, and Kitson observes that the etching of this subject is one of the finest. The Leeds collection has a set of examples from this series, and another of these, 'An Ecclesiast in his Study' (LEEAG.1949.0009.0774) is also exceptionally Rembrandtian in concept and execution. Both form part of an extended group of subjects by Cotman from the later 1820s and 1830s in which he imagines historical subjects in a variety of manners favoured by Dutch Old Masters. Amongst these there is a particular strand in which he imagines scholars ensconced in their studies and immersed in their paraphernalia of books and art and antiques. There is clearly a self-projection of life in the Cotman house on Bishop's Plain in Norwich, surrounded by his literary and artistic props, living out the life of the grand artist. Like Rembrandt, he surrounded himself with a collection of antiques, missals, art, furniture and fabrics. Like Rembrandt he suffered the edifice being liquidated to stave off financial ruin.

The published etchings do not appear to have had a printed list of subjects, so it is unclear on what grounds Kitson's 1937 list refers to the present composition as 'The Spanish Student'. A. E. Popham in his 1922 list of Cotman's etchings calls it no.342 as '(The Student)', where the brackets indicate that the title had no firm foundation. The Spanish connection is further confused by the title 'The Spanish Student' also being inscribed on the mount of the 1846 etching of 'An Ecclesiast' in the Leeds collection (LEEAG.1949.0009.0774), where it is plainly inappropriate.

The composition does, however, plainly chime with numerous compositions from the seventeenth century. Amongst those that come readily to hand are Thomas Wyck's, 'A Scholar in his Study' (mid 1600s), in the Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm []

or an etching of 'A Scholar in his Study', 1634 after a painting by G.van Vliet: []

or the famous painting by Jan Vermeer of 'The Astronomer', 1668, Louvre Paris: []

Cotman developed a number of variations on this specific composition. The most directly related version is a watercolour in a private collection. This was sold as 'Circle of John Sell Cotman, British 1782-1842- "The Student" at Rosebery's, London, Fine Art Auction, 9 December 2014, lot 849, and has subsequently been identified as the work exhibited at the Cotman exhibition held at the Norwich Fine Art Circle, July 1888, no.22 as 'The Philosopher in his Study', A man in green coat seated near old chest with scrolls and globes. Screen in rear. Etched by J.S.Cotman. 9 1/2 x 7 3/8 ins. J.H.Inglis Palgrave'. This is a loose watercolour in rich colour, possibly made as an idea for an oil painting.

There is also a pencil study in a private collection that was sold by Chorley's Fine Art & Antiques, Cheltenham, including Jewellery and silver, Day 1: 24 September 2014, Lot 476 as 'A Seated Cavalier, Writing'. This is a close variant of the present composition with figure in the same pose, but dressed differently, wearing a large plumed hat, and drawing or writing on a large folio, with a dog seated at his feet.

That study informs a large and more finished pencil study in the Leeds collection, which reiterates the same figure seated at the table, a dog at his feet, but now with a crowd of onlookers behind, and a priest and finely dressed gentleman to the right (LEEAG.1949.0009.0681).

The direct iterations of this composition culminated in a subject picture exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society in London in 1836 as no.194, 'Velazquez designing his celebrated picture of the Crucifixion'. This subsequently lost its original title and was exhibited at the Norwich Fine Art Circle exhibition of 1888 as no.174 'Columbus: Figure writing in left centre in front of a large crucifix, at the foot of which are globes and scrolls lying on chest. Figure on right drawing aside a curtain. 16 7/8 x 13 3/8 ins. Signed 'J S Cotman, 1836', This was lent by Cotman's one-time pupil and late friend and patron the Rev J R Bulwer, and illustrated in the catalogue in a lithograph drawn by Miss A B Woodward. From the illustration is it plain that it can be identified with the 1836 title. Sadly the picture appears to be completely untraced since its appearance in 1888.

One of Cotman's earliest essays in imagining a haven of imagination is a fine studio watercolour that was once owned by Kitson, but was allocated after his death to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (P.27-1939). In his 1937 typescript catalogue (No.11) Kitson identified this with a work exhibited at the Norfolk and Suffolk Institution, Norwich, 1828 no. 155 as 'The Investigation', but there is nothing in the composition to answer to such a subject. Rather, I would propose, that title belongs to a watercolour reproduced in Victor Rienaecker's 1953 book on Cotman, pl.93 as 'The Investigation. Clearly, Cotman's subject pictures of the later 1820s and 1830 have suffered from a lack of attention, for that example, amongst many others, appears to be untraced today.

The probable misidentification apart, Kitson does devote quite a lot of attention to the picture, and not surprisingly, for it was one of the first major examples of Cotman's work that he bought. He writes in the Life, 1937, pp. 277-8 'It was done, seemingly, rather to gratify the artist's vanity than to attract a prospective customer.. In the centre of the picture is a figure, a self-portrait of Cotman, dressed in a sixteenth century costume and seated at a table, bending over a great ledger. His delicate and idealised features are seen in profile. His eldest son, Miles Edmund, dressed in a light blue habit, and his youngest son, Alfred, in a yellow overall, stand at his side and hold a great roll of damask, the particulars of which the central figure is entering in the inventory spread before him. Coats of armour, shields and pikes are scattered around the room; and through the latticed window, where the Cotman coat of arms is emblazoned, a glimpse is obtained of a wooded park beyond. There is a stiff and ingenuous look about this strange piece of self -portraiture, yet it glows with colour round the mass of rose madder in the garments of the central figure. When Dawson Turner saw the drawing.. it is likely enough that he shook his head, and sized it up as still another unsaleable production of his poor vain friend, who had so defiantly refused to part with his big house and his uneconomic fancies.'

Kitson's identification of the figures falls down on several counts. Firstly the principal figure is far too young to be Cotman aged nearly fifty, and the main figure at the left looks to be certainly female. What, however if the identities are shifted about a little? The principal figure is a young man in his later teens, the young woman is a little younger, perhaps in her mid-teens, and the small boy is eight or nine. They could easily be, therefore, Miles Edmund born in 1810 and eighteen in 1828, his sister Ann, born 1812 and so sixteen, and their youngest brother, Alfred born 1819 so a boy of nine. Kitson clearly thought that the delicate idealised features resembled Cotman, but needed presumably little finessing if they were those of Miles Edmund. In this context it is worth proposing that a portrait drawing at the British Museum (1885,1010.4) usually said to be a portrait of John Sell by Miles Edmund, has all the same temporal issues. The portrait is of far too young a man to be John Sell approaching fifty, as he would be to have been of an age to be the subject of such a mature drawing if by Miles Edmund. Rather it is surely a very tender portrait of Miles Edmund by his father, and this profile seems plainly reiterated in the whole series of scholar subjects related to the present drawing. That would add a double pathos to the whole series. Not only is Cotman projecting his hopes, ideals and dreams of an artistic way of life into these subjects, but he is projecting also his hopes and fears for his son and his siblings. Truly he wished to build for them a haven for their imaginations and to build around them in a harbour for their souls.

David Hill, November 2017