Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


85 Doorway of the Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey 1803

Watercolour over pencil on laid paper 31.9 x 25.5 (12 1/2 x 10)
Inscribed twice in pencil on along top edge 'Ivy' and lower right 'Rivaulx Abbey Augt 8 1803', and numbered in pen and brown ink lower right '6'


Cotman was one of the most original landscape watercolourists of his generation. His twentieth-century reputation rests on the work he produced in the earlier part of his career which, rather like that of Francis Towne - and in his own day as little appreciated - reveals an interest in structure and pictorial pattern, expressed through carefully ordered areas of flat colour. Towne's best work, as for so many of his eighteenth-century contemporaries, had been inspired by scenery encountered abroad. Cotman, on the other hand, like Girtin and Turner, found a powerful imaginative stimulus closer to home in the landscape of the north of England. Indeed, when the famous nineteenth-century critic John Ruskin wrote that of all Turner's drawings it was 'those of ... Yorkshire ...[that] have the most heart in them', he might just as well have been referring to Cotman - except, as it happens, Ruskin seems never to have commented on Cotman's work at all (Kitson 1937, pp.332-3).

Born in Norwich, like Turner the son of a barber, Cotman had little formal training before his move to London in 1798. The following year, like Turner and Girtin before him, he joined Dr Monro's 'Academy' in the Strand, and also became a member of the Sketching Society, succeeding Girtin as its leading spirit (see under no.83). His watercolours of c.1800-2 are greatly influenced by Girtin, with strong tonal contrasts and an essentially sombre palette (two examples, Houses at Epsom, 1800 (T08765) and Llangollen (T08237), are in the Opp? collection). Cotman's distinctive watercolour style began to emerge in about 1803 in drawings made at meetings of the Sketching Society and on the first of his visits to Yorkshire to stay with the Cholmeley family at Brandsby Hall some fifteen miles north of York. Indeed, this drawing of Rievaulx, as well as being one of the first of Cotman's drawings to show his single-minded concentration on isolated motifs (Stainton 1985, p.57), is also regarded as one of the earliest to show the emergence of his new watercolour style - though pencilwork (with its small dots and dashes, so characteristic of the Monro School house style) still plays a substantial role (Kitson 1937, p.54). However, one writer has made the important observation that drawings made at almost exactly the same date by John Varley (1778-1842) - fellow member of the Sketching Society and brother to Cornelius (no.84) - show a very similar move towards the adoption of clean, flat washes; he suggests that Varley, as the older of the two artists, was probably the dominant influence, even if it was Cotman who was to apply the new style in such a singular manner (Hardie 1967, vol.2, p.75).

Cotman drew the famous ruined Cistercian abbey at Rievaulx near Helmsley several times on his trip to North Yorkshire in 1803, firstly in July when sketching in company with Paul Sandby Munn (1773-1845), then between 7 and 9 August on his own (when this watercolour was made). His various representations of the abbey are in a number of collections (see Rajnai 1982, p.48), a striking pencil drawing looking into the transept being in the Tate Gallery (T00973). This watercolour of the Refectory doorway was etched by Cotman for his Miscellaneous Etchings of 1811 (Popham 1922, no.12). One of the subscribers to this series was the third Viscount Palmerston - son of Pars's most important patron (see no.46) and the future Prime Minister - whom Cotman met in 1803 when staying with the Cholmeleys at Brandsby (Kitson 1937, p.57).

Anne Lyles

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.204 no.85, reproduced in colour p.205