The Cotman Collection | A schooner in a fresh gale and choppy seas. Called 'A Seascape'

John Sell Cotman

A schooner in a fresh gale and choppy seas. Called 'A Seascape'

A schooner in a fresh gale and choppy seas. Called 'A Seascape'
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Associated Person: Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775 - 1851
Title: A schooner in a fresh gale and choppy seas. Called 'A Seascape'
Date: 1801
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Watercolour on wove paper
Support: White, wove paper
Dimensions: Support: 218 mm x 188 mm
Reference: LEEAG.PA.1949.0009.0665
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1949

This is a richly-worked studio watercolour of a two-masted schooner in a fresh gale and choppy sea. The vessel occupies most of the centre of the composition and is seen from off the starboard bow, heeling to starboard whilst running on a port broad reach. It has a tan-coloured gaff fore sail sheeted quite tightly to make all speed, and a white mainsail billowing out to starboard with the boom slackened. There is a buoy in the right foreground and what appears to be spars of wreckage in the waves to the left. In the left distance is a three-masted ship, again heeling to starboard and in the right distance is the white sail of a small lugger. There are dark clouds above the horizon to the left and dramatic shadows in the foreground. Cotman has signed and dated the watercolour at the bottom right 'J S Cotman 1801'. Kitson's 1937 catalogue notes traces of an erased inscription of Cotman's initials 'JSC' at the lower left, but that is not obvious today.

The schooner is probably sailing close to its limit. A yard is secured half way up the foremast but appears to be swinging dangerously in the swell. A number of passengers and crew can be seen under the foresail. One may conclude that the passage must be quite exciting.

The watercolour is significant in that it is one of Cotman's earliest dated finished works. It is also one of his first major seascapes, and stands at the beginning of a lifelong interest in ships and boats.

Corinne Miller in Leeds 1992 suggests that the immediate stimulus for Cotman's composition might have been Turner's painting 'Dutch Boats in a Gale; fishermen endeavouring to put their fish on board', which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801 (Private Collection). There are, however, no specific points of comparison, and it remains a matter for conjecture what might have been Cotman's source, perhaps an engraving by Willem van der Velde, for example. Cotman can have had relatively little personal experience of the sea at this stage in his life.

It is clear, however, that Turner's watercolour technique had already proved inspirational to Cotman. He has very successfully assimilated Turner's complex techniques of working wet into wet, blotting out, scratching and overworking to create seamless tonal transitions - in effect to paint with watercolour rather simply tint or wash. He pursued this style very successfully for a few years, before emphatically and permanently developing an entirely idiosyncratic method of tinting and washing after about 1805.

Kitson Life 1937 p.26 makes some interesting observations about the technique and the condition: ''The whole is heavily painted in a red-grey, with indigo superimposed. In this case the blue has not faded and the drawing is in its original condition. The rigging is treated in the definite way which is a permanent characteristic of Cotman's shipping'.

A comparable watercolour, and possibly from the same year, is a composition of 'Caernarvon Castle', with various boats in the foreground struggling in rough seas, that was sold at Keys Fine Art Auctioneers, Aylsham, Norfolk, 27 November 2015, lot.63 repr.

Kitson also relates an unusual circumstance that was discovered only after he bought the picture: 'When the picture was removed recently from its original mount, a pencil scribble was found on the face of the card. Cotman had been amusing himself by jotting down at random something which he thought would never be seen again. There is a girl's head, surrounded by foliage; a landscape in vignette, and his own name in full 'John Sell Cotman, 1801' written in his most flamboyant script. That drawing is catalogued separately here (LEEAG,1949.0009.0646), where it is discussed more fully. However it is worth differing from Kitson here in one respect to say that the landscape is, rather, a seascape and the design some kind of frontispiece. In the context of the present work it is pertinent that he evidently already styled himself as a marine painter. The Leeds collection includes hundreds of sketches and drawings representing every phase of his observations of such subjects.

David Hill, November 2017