Though few members of the public give much thought to ranking the prestige of different art forms, if forced to do so it is likely that watercolour painting would be granted an affectionate but decidedly second-tier status. We think of pretty landscapes formed with washed-out pigments: light browns, greens, yellows, pinks and reds that tend to pink, of Englishmen in sunhats sitting patiently in a field, enjoying a hobby for idle gentlemen. Meanwhile, in a stratum below all of this lies our childhood memories of dipping thin brushes in water, rubbing them against coins of hard paint, and applying the resultant mixture to soggy paper.
There is some truth to all of this, but it is at best a half-truth. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the emergence of painters who used watercolours to sublime effect: Thomas Girtin, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner – who produced three times as many paintings based on watercolours as on oils — elevated landscape art to a position of dominance, at least for a time. Lesser known today but judged by earlier critics to have been one of the most innovative and artistic of the watercolourists was John Sell Cotman (1782-1842).
Born in Norwich, Cotman defied his father’s wishes to go into the family’s drapery business and left for London at the age of 16 to learn painting. Though lacking formal artistic training, by 18 he had six of his pictures accepted by the Royal Academy, and he had gained entrance to the coterie of artists surrounding (and partly supported by) the physician and collector Dr. Thomas Munro, a group that included the watercolourist John Varley as well as Girtin and Turner.
Though his instincts drew him toward the creation of strong patterns of lighter and darker tones, he was influenced by his London milieu to soften his contrasts and to use subdued colours. Yet despite evincing a clear enthusiasm for the metropolis – “London with all its fog and smoke is the only air for an artist to breathe in,” he once said –- Cotman went on to spend much of his time in Yorkshire during the first years of the nineteenth century, and it was here that he produced work that most critics have considered his finest.
His paintings from this phase are sensitive and balanced; the best example of which is Greta Bridge (below), in which the naturally muted colours of a cloudy day are combined with a simplicity of surfaces that hints at both the abstract and the impressionistic. Art critic and Blake scholar Charles Collins Baker called him “a great colourist”, noting that “his earlier palette produced that rare plenitude that only masters of exquisite simplicity and restraint compass: from his palette the brown glebe, the black reflection of massed trees in a still river, the grey and gold of weathered stone and plaster, the glinting gold on foliage and the gilded green of translucent leaves have a special and supernal quality of dream pageants rather than of actuality.”
Both Cotman and Turner were strongly influenced by the work of Thomas Girtin, the watercolourist most attuned to Neo-classicism. Yet Cotman’s preferred style of painting was not as detailed as either Girtin’s or Turner’s – a painter, wrote poet and art scholar Laurence Binyon in 1933, “whose mind was stored with subtle and unceasing observation of every change in light and atmosphere” — but at a psychological level it was perhaps more realistic. Turner’s every-single-branch-and-bud precision can be overwhelming, as if the viewer has been forced to stare at the same copse for too long. Cotman, by contrast, conveys a landscape as apprehended in a gentle glance. Writes Binyon of these paintings, “No lovelier watercolours were ever made.”
As Cotman aged, he returned to his original affinity for pattern and bold contrast, and his later works are vivid and compelling in a way that perhaps appeals more strongly to our less-well-trained modern eyes. It certainly does to mine. The painting that captured my attention recently was A Study of Sea and Gulls (1832, below), which combines strong contrasts and blocks of bold colour with an extremely realistic rendering of part-transparent, part-reflective shallow water. Structurally the picture is simple and powerful, with a stark tower of dessicated wood anchoring the view and a flight of white seagulls pulling the eye up from there with an elegant swoop into the menacing clouds above.
Colour increasingly became Cotman’s primary interest. Visiting Normandy and contemplating the city of Cherbourg, he wrote in a letter of 1820: “When sufficiently near to the Town you look down upon it as upon a fine quarry of dead silver with here and there a strip of gold and the light and shadowed sides both coming off from the deep azure of the bay, as one mass of rich and glowing pearl colour.” In order to achieve the richness of colour that he required to depict such scenes he had begun in the 1830s to experiment with mixing sour paste with his pigments.
Storm on Yarmouth Beach (1831, below) is another fine example of this technique. It is similar in ways to A Study of Sea and Gulls: the clouds are composed of the same dramatic mix of blue-black thunderheads and white patches of vanishing sky. But the glassily accurate water and sand of the Study have been replaced by a beach of vividly warm yellow. Such strength of colour may be justified as a depiction of the last burst of light from a setting sun angling its rays under the burgeoning clouds, but it may also be what Binyon had in mind when he judged many of Cotman’s late works to be “unpleasant” experiments in opposing colours (“gaudily melodramatic”, charged another critic).
On the whole, though, I agree with James Hall of The Independent, who called Cotman’s later paintings “superb” when they were shown at the Royal Academy as part of the 1993 exhibition “The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880”. As a natural artist who was capable of creating both delicate pictures of carefully balanced hues and patterns, and bold – almost brassy – compositions of massed colour and dramatic impact, John Sell Cotman should drive all thoughts of English gentlemen in sun hats out of your mind forever.
——Not a breath of air
Ruffles the bosom of this leafy glen.
From the brook’s margin, wide around, the trees
Are stedfast as the rocks; the brook itself,
Old as the hills that feed it from afar,
Doth rather deepen than disturb the calm
Where all things else are still and motionless.
And yet, even now, a little breeze, perchance
Escaped from boisterous winds that rage without,
Has entered, by the sturdy oaks unfelt,
But to its gentle touch how sensitive
Is the light ash! that, pendent from the brow
Of yon dim cave, in seeming silence makes
A soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs,
Powerful almost as vocal harmony
To stay the wanderer’s steps and soothe his thoughts.
– William Wordsworth (1835)