The Cotman Collection | A shady pool on the river Greta near Rokeby. Called 'Hell Caldron' (or 'Hell Cauldron')

John Sell Cotman

A shady pool on the river Greta near Rokeby. Called 'Hell Caldron' (or 'Hell Cauldron')

A shady pool on the river Greta near Rokeby. Called 'Hell Caldron' (or 'Hell Cauldron')
Artist: John Sell Cotman, British, 1782 - 1842
Title: A shady pool on the river Greta near Rokeby. Called 'Hell Caldron' (or 'Hell Cauldron')
Date: 1805
Object name: Watercolour
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on laid paper
Support: White, laid paper
Reference: LEEAG.1955.0016.0002
Credit Line: Bequeathed to the National Art Collections Fund from the Ernest Cook collection and presented to Leeds, 1955.

This is a large upright watercolour of the view across a still pool in a rocky river, with the water occupying the bottom half of the composition, a sandy bank beyond topped by grass and backed by dark mature trees, all against a blue sky and reflected in the water.

The subject, as Miklos Rajnai (V&A 1982) established, is the readily-recognisable pool on the river Greta a couple of hundred yards above Greta Bridge, where the stream issues from a narrow channel. Cotman visited Rokeby Hall, the nearby home of J.B.S.Morritt, in August 1805 in the company of his Yorkshire friend and patron Francis Cholmeley. Afterwards, Cotman stayed for some time at the Morritt Arms near Greta Bridge. Hill 2005 traces the stay in detail and relates the subject of the present watercolour to a letter written by Cotman to Francis Cholmeley from Greta Bridge on 29 August 1805 when he reported that he bathed every day 'under the tree we looked at together on our going that scrambly walk up the Greta to the rock. I have coloured a sketch of it which I call My Bath.' The pool in this watercolour remains a fine spot for bathing and the nearest swimming spot for someone staying in the Morritt Arms.

Cotman made a studio watercolour version of the composition now at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh (585). Sydney Kitson (Life, 1937, p.84) describes the Edinburgh version as 'the final solution to a series of trials', and notes of the present watercolour: 'One such trial was found in a London attic, and recognised as a Cotman. It was sent to Christie's in June, 1936, where it was catalogued as 'Lake Scene with Trees'. Despite its faded condition it fetched a large price'.

Kitson attempted to buy the present watercolour at the 1936 sale, and his interest is documented in his 'Cotmania' notebook, vol.11 for 1936-7 (pp.58-9). On the right page he pasted the page from Christie's sale catalogue, where it is listed as 'J.S.Cotman, 114 A Lake Scene, with trees, 15 in. by 13 in.' This was evidently sent him by his friend and fellow collector Norman Lupton, for it is inscribed at the top: 'Dear Sydney - Rather faded but quite lovely. I'm building - damn it! Norman'. The sheet also has a quick pencil sketch of the composition, whilst noting, also in pencil, that the sketch [being squeezed into the margin] gave the 'Proportion wrong', and the subject was possibly the 'Greta-Tees Meeting of the Waters'.

Another collector friend, Paul Oppe wrote to Kitson about it, and a cutting of his letter is pasted opposite: 'I rather hoped when I saw yr parcel that it contained a photo of the Edinburgh Shady Pool. I've been to Christie's now 3 times to see it, but not once seen it undisturbed. Spite of my suspicion that it is Bradley's [?] & of his having stood by me today and praised it, I think that it is right enough J.S.C. But it is faded & discoloured therefore looks flattish & weak & I can scarcely ask you to buy it unseen, tho' I feel that you would be sorry to miss it at about £65.'

Below that Kitson wrote his own note of events: 'Lot 114 at Christie's on June 12, '36 was 'A Lake Scene, with trees' - an early version of the Edinburgh 'Shady Pool'. I went to town to see it on June 11 & instructed [the London dealer] Meatyard to make a bid for it. Unsuccessful'. At the top of the page Kitson pasted a telegram from Meatyard informing him of the outcome: 'Cotman Realised 200 Hundred and Thirty - Gooden'. The successful bidders were the London dealers Gooden & Fox and they in turn sold it to the collector Ernest Cook (1865-1955). Cook was the grandson of the travel magnate Thomas Cook and developed the business into something of an empire before selling his interest in 1928. Thereafter he devoted his time and enormous fortune to collecting art and country estates. He was a major benefactor of the National Trust and on his death in 1955 left the largest-ever bequest of fine and decorative art to the National Arts Collection Fund. Had Kitson lived to see it he would no doubt have been highly satisfied to see the picture that he had coveted in 1936 allocated to Leeds Art Gallery from Cook's bequest.

Miklos Rajnai (V&A 1982) says that the pool on the river Greta is situated 'where the river widens after a narrow passage called Hell Cauldron.' What might have been Rajnai's source of information is unclear, but I have not been able to find any map or other reference that so names any part of the river, let alone this specific stretch. It is clear, however that such a place name did exist in Cotman's time, for in 1808 he exhibited at the Norwich Society of Artists as no.184 a subject entitled 'Hell Caldron, Rokeby Park'. A watercolour of this title is referred to in a letter to Francis Cholmeley from his mother Teresa Cholmeley of Brandsby Hall. Francis had evidently visited Cotman in his studio in London, and reported seeing the painting near completion: 'I am glad his Hell Cauldron is a good one and I hope Bob [ie her brother Sir Henry Englefield] will like it.' On this basis Rajnai suggests that the present watercolour is that made for Englefield, and the National Gallery of Scotland version that exhibited in 1808. Hill 2005, however, suggests that the subject seems insufficiently diabolical to warrant being called 'Hell Caldron', and that such a name is more likely to have been attached to more precipitous stretch a little further upstream, where the 'Devil's Elbow' is still current, and of which Cotman made several compositions. One of these is in the Leeds collection [LEEAG.1949.0009.0654] and the range of treatments is discussed there.

Hill 2005's identification of this subject with that described by Cotman as 'My Bath' points to the conclusion that the present watercolour must be identifiable with the 'coloured sketch' that mentions making. The watercolour handling seems improvised rather than studio-managed, and in many passages ad hoc and overworked. Hill 2005 in general seeks wherever possible to reverse a scholarly trendthat has tended to situate most of Cotman's Greta subjects in the studio. Clearly the letter to Francis Cholmeley proves that he did some coloured sketching direct from nature, and in particular a coloured sketch of this subject. The contention in Hill 2005 is that the present watercolour may be taken as diagnostic of Cotman's impressive capabilities when working direct from nature, and the Edinburgh watercolour equally diagnostic of his tendency to further essentialise and abstract when working in the studio. I am happy to reassert that contention here.

David Hill, November 2017