The Cotman Collection | Figure Composition: An artist receiving visitors in his studio.

John Sell Cotman

Figure Composition: An artist receiving visitors in his studio.
c. 1833

Figure Composition: An artist receiving visitors in his studio.
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: Figure Composition: An artist receiving visitors in his studio.
Date: c. 1833
Object name: Drawing
Medium: Graphite on wove paper
Support: White, textured, wove paper, watermarked 'B E & S 1828'
Dimensions: Support: 257 mm x 347 mm
Reference: LEEAG.1949.0009.0681
Credit Line: Bequeathed by Sydney Decimus Kitson, 1949

This is a firmly-drawn graphite study of an historical figure subject. It depicts the interior of a large room with a finely-dressed scholar in the left foreground, facing right seated at a table reading writing (or drawing) in a large book with a stylus in his right hand. Behind him, four figures watch on whilst a greyhound sits by a folio at his feet. To the right stand two figures; the first a monk or ecclesiastic (perhaps an academic) in long gown and hood, carrying a thick book in his right hand; the second a gentleman cavalier, evidently entering the room to visit, with riding boots and sword and holding a plumed hat in his right hand. The drawing is inscribed by Cotman in graphite lower left 'Cotman', and illegibly top left and along upper edge. Inscribed on verso in graphite by unknown hand: 'J S Cotman/ bought at his sale/ by [?]Tyrell/ of Beccles'

This composition is the climax of a sequence of essays on the theme of the scholar or artist in his study. Several of these are in the Leeds collection.

The first is a graphite sketch of a scholar seated in his study (LEEAG.1949.0009.0609). The figure has precisely the same pose, and works at a book on a table, but the book is in this case on a stand, there are globes on the table and a woman enters the composition from the right. Kitson's 1937 list identifies this as a sketch for an etching by Cotman that he calls 'The Spanish Student (LEEAG.1949.0009.0775). 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.

These belong to a strand in which Cotman 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 big house on Bishop's Plain in Norwich, surrounded by his literary and artistic propos, living out the life of the grand artist. Like Rembrandt he surrounded himself with a collection of antiques, missals, art, furniture and fabrics.

The composition chimes with numerous compositions from the seventeenth century. Amongst those that came readily to hand were 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 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 scholar composition, and sets 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. This is a direct precursor of the figure in the present composition.

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.

The present composition is certainly a direct development of the figure study sold at Chorley's, but on a different path to the Velazquez composition. Here we appear to have a gentleman come to visit. It is significant that the visitor is dressed in the same manner as the artist. This would imply that the artist is of the same social status as the gentleman. We may further infer that the artist is a man of property and possessions, is receiving visits at his home where he is the centre of attention, and his work is of such importance that he is justified in concentrating on it, and may chose when to break off to acknowledge his visitor's presence. The presence of the robed figure is interesting. He stands by as if he was already on the premises when the gentleman arrived. So the artist is receiving audience from church and state, and has the respect of both. It is not hard to see a good deal of wilful self-projection here, and perhaps something of a lecture to his erstwhile patrons and associates. The subject might almost be Rubens receiving the Duke of Alba and the Bishop of Antwerp if such a visitation ever occurred. Either way, it was certainly a design for the way things ought to have been at the Bishop's Plain in Norwich.

It is worth noting that the artist makes a ghostly appearance at the centre of the composition, as if Cotman's first idea on this sheet was to place his principal figure there. Moreover it does appear from their linear quality that both the figures on the right have been first traced onto the sheet. Further investigation might reveal further parallels and networks of sources that come together in this composition. Furthermore it certainly seems likely that this relatively large composition was made as the basis of a finished work. Whether that might have been a large watercolour or perhaps even an oil painting is not clear, but Cotman did exhibit with the Old Watercolour Society, London, 1833, no.249 a subject entitled 'A Painter's Study', which is otherwise untraced.

David Hill, November 2017