The Cotman Collection | Blakeney Church and Wiveton Hall, North Norfolk

John Sell Cotman

Blakeney Church and Wiveton Hall, North Norfolk

Blakeney Church and Wiveton Hall, North Norfolk
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Blakeney Church and Wiveton Hall, North Norfolk
Date: 1818
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on wove paper
Support: Cream wove paper
Dimensions: Support: 171 mm x 283 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1949.0009.0650
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1949

This is a careful studio watercolour in graphite with grey and sepia washes showing an expansive landscape with low hills in the middle distance crowned by a church towards the lef. The land falls away to the right past a post windmill towards a large house flanked by outbuildings, with shipping seen at the extreme right. Dark clouds blow over from the left, whilst gulls wheel against the sky to the right, and in the foreground, below the church is a humped wooden bridge carrying the road across an estuarine river.

The church and the windmill are those of Blakeney, North Norfolk, and the house is Wiveton Hall. The watercolour was made as part of a series of drawings for the book 'Excursions through Norfolk', published in two volumes, 1819. This watercolour was engraved by J Greig, dated 1 April 1819 and appeared in volume 1, opposite p.174. Leeds has another drawing, 'The Doorway to the Vestry of St Simon's Church, Norwich' (LEEAG.1952.0005.0053) also engraved for the 'Excursions', and several examples of the published engravings.

Cotman's viewpoint is close to the present George Hotel at Cley. The orientation is given by the lantern tower at the east end of Blakeney church. This housed a light to guide ships into the harbours at Blakeney and Cley. The harbours were important in the middle ages, but largely silted up by the seventeenth century. The bridge in the foreground appears to be on the line of the present Blakeney to Cley road, where the immediately surrounding land and marshes are today drained and reclaimed, or managed as reedmarsh. Extensive tidal marshland however is still present to seaward, and is a major attraction.

Cotman well captures the wide-open character of the marshland landscape, although the Blakeney hillsides are now clothed with mature woodlands and Wiveton Hall is so embowered that it is barely visible from this point.

Curiously, given that this is one of most affecting of Cotman's images for the Excursions, Blakeney gets little mention in the text and Wiveton Hall none at all.

Cotman made several dozen drawings for 'Excursions Through Norfolk' project. They are painted in a uniform palette of subtle sepias and greys, and are some of the most sparing and economically beautiful drawings of Cotman's career. In many ways they represent the aesthetic peak of his early career, so it is somewhat disappointing that the engravings are uniformly small and generally careless - although that of the present watercolour is an exception - and on the whole are a travesty of the quality that Cotman invested in the originals.

To add insult to injury Grieg failed to pay for the work he had engraved, and dodged Cotman's approaches. The story is told by Kitson in his 'Life of Cotman' pp.184-6. Cotman's agreement with Grieg was to be paid 1 1/2 gns (£1.11.6) for each of the seventy-seven subjects that he painted, a total of £131.5.6 - enough to buy a small house - or for someone to lead a careful bourgeois existence for a year. It remains unclear whether Grieg or the publishers Longman's ever actually paid what was owed.

This drawing is one of two that Kitson bought from Squire's Gallery in October 1936. It had previously belonged to Henry A Bulwer of British Columbia, from whose collection Kitson bought a group of eighteen drawings in 1934. These had descended from Cotman's pupil, later friend and patron, the Reverend James Bulwer (1794-1879). He was a supporter of Cotman throughout his career, and bought work both directly from the artist and indirectly. His biggest single acquisition, however, was in 1818 when he bought a collection of 'Three Hundred original Drawings and Sketches in Norfolk, calculated to illustrate Blomefield's History of that County'. This collection generally consisted of high-quality pencil drawings and watercolours (some exceptionally so), but most of the drawings in the group bought in 1934 much that same stature as the hundreds of sketches that Kitson bought as mounted on larger sheets by the artist; and it may be that Bulwer, who lived for thirty-five years after Cotman's death, and was a patron of both sons Miles Edmund and John Joseph, acquired one or more similar sheets of sketches from the posthumous sales of Cotman's reference material.

David Hill, November 2017