Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


86 On the Greta c.1805

Watercolour over pencil with very slight traces of gouache on laid paper 22.8 x 33.3 (9 x 13 1/8)
Inscribed on verso in pencil 'On the Greta' and numbered in pen and brown ink '20'


Cotman's stay with the Cholmeley family at Brandsby Hall in North Yorkshire in 1803 (see no.85) was the first of three very happy visits there made during consecutive summers. It was the third of these visits, in 1805, which was to be the most productive, for it was during this year that, in addition to studies near Brandsby, Cotman also made the famous sequence of striking watercolour studies on the river Greta near Rokeby on the Yorkshire-Durham border. Altogether he spent about five weeks in and around Rokeby, staying some of the time with the Morritts at Rokeby Hall itself (John Morritt was a classical scholar who had been on the Grand Tour, collecting the famous Rokeby Venus by the seventeenth-century Spanish painter Vel?zquez now in the National Gallery) and the rest of the time at a nearby inn. The wooded slopes and winding paths close to the river Greta in Rokeby Park inspired what Laurence Binyon described as 'the most perfect examples of pure watercolour ever made in Europe' (1931, p.132).

On the banks of the river Greta Cotman absorbed himself in the task of translating nature into art, and Lindsay Stainton (1985, p.58) has tellingly analysed his method. Pure, translucent wash layers are applied by him without monochrome underpainting and with minimum shadow, defining shape with their crisp edges rather than (like Towne) by means of outline - his procedure has been likened to that of the Japanese woodcut artist printing flat colours from superimposed woodblocks (Hardie 1967, vol.2, pp.80-1). There is an avoidance of any effect of movement; and, in denial of traditional methods of creating depth in a picture, natural forms are reduced to simple, flat shapes and presented in planes very close to the picture surface. The resulting images, with their tendency towards abstract design, can be difficult to 'read' but are always compelling in their combination of shape and pattern. Despite their pictorial resolution, however, it seems likely that at least some of Cotman's Greta studies were coloured on the spot. In 1805 Cotman specifically wrote to a patron that his 'chief Study' that summer had been 'colouring from Nature', his sketches 'close copies of that ficle Dame' (Kitson 1937, pp.79-80). In an important early article on Cotman written in the 1920s Paul Opp? pointed out that close-up studies of bank, water, tree trunks and rock were an especially convenient choice of subject for the artist when attempting to colour from nature, being comparatively independent of atmospheric change (1923A, p.ix).

However, these watercolours failed to find favour with the public. Attempting to sell Cotman's Miscellaneous Etchings of 1811 (see no.85), a York bookseller pointed out that 'two thirds of mankind, you know, mind more about what is represented than how it is done'. In 1806, 'blackballed' from joining the Society of Painters in Watercolour in London, Cotman returned to Norwich, becoming a leading member of the Norwich Society of Artists, and depending on his faithful patron, the Yarmouth banker Dawson Turner, for commissions of antiquarian and architectural subjects, many of which he worked up as etchings. The most important of these were the Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk, 1812-18, and the Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, 1822, the latter based on drawings gathered on three separate trips to Normandy, some of them made with the Graphic Telescope invented by Cornelius Varley (see no.84 and Pidgley 1972, pp.785-6). Although there was an element of drudgery to this work and Cotman was sometimes short of money, as Opp? pointed out (as a corrective to previous accounts), Cotman's later career was spent 'neither in misery nor without recognition' (1942, p.163). Indeed, in 1833 Cotman was appointed drawing master at King's College, London, a prestigious post he retained until his death in 1842.

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.206 no.86, reproduced in colour p.207