This spare, highly evocative watercolour was made by John Sell Cotman at the beginning of his career, shortly after he returned to his native Norwich from a period in London. Regarded as one of the most fertile and creative moments in Cotman’s career, his early Norwich watercolours show a technical innovation and clarity of vision that has long seen him regarded as one of the pioneers of the medium and the true successor to Girtin and his Romanic vision. In the present sheet, Cotman has focused on a quiet corner of Norwich Cathedral, unremarkable from both an architectural and antiquarian point of view, building the composition with controlled, planar washes to create a composition of bold monumentality. It was these flat areas of wash which caused Cotman to be co-opted in the twentieth century as a proto-modernist, as the writer and critic Laurence Binyon noted in his survey English Water-Colours, published in 1933: ‘there was no need to invoke Cézanne, for Cotman was there to show the way.’
In 1806 Cotman had failed to be elected a member of the newly founded Society of Painters in Water Colours (later known as the Old Watercolour Society) and it was this failure which almost certainly precipitated his return to Norwich. He exhibited for the last time at the Royal Academy and set up a school of drawing in Wymer Street, Norwich. Possibly in a concerted effort to establish himself with the Norwich public, he began to devote himself to the depiction of Norwich architecture. In the 1807 exhibition of the Norwich Society of Artists, founded in 1805 by John Crome and others, Cotman showed twenty works, including three of the city itself. In 1808, his tally rose to 67, but, though he was at pains to demonstrate the full range of his abilities, there were no watercolours of Norwich.
Kitson estimated that there were 'at least ten' drawings of the interior of Norwich cathedral of which the present sheet is one of the most compelling. Cotman’s reductive approach means that the composition essentially comprises several powerful geometric shapes created by the carefully modulated washes suggestive of light and shade. By breaking up the washes of greys, browns and ochres and leaving small irregular patches of paper exposed, the Cotman suggests the textures of worn stone and wood. The precise purpose of the watercolours of Norwich Cathedral are not clear. There is no indication that he intended to publish them; most, such as the present sheet, show minor features of the cathedral and would have served little antiquarian purpose. Andrew Hemingway has suggested that Cotman’s choice of views suggest a considerable interest in pre-gothic architecture, 'which was felt to express the sobriety and virility of Norman culture.' The scarred wall shows the evidence of funerary brasses having been removed and the box pews have been inexpertly built into the remains of an earlier tomb suggesting that Cotman might have been alive to debates around desecration following the Reformation. But the present view seems more likely to represent a picturesque interest in dilapidation which characterises much of Cotman’s work at this moment. Other views from the series show corners of Norwich Cathedral that had been largely forgotten, for example the impressive sheet depicting Jesus Chapel now in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, shows the space being used as a lumber room, with a ladder propped up against the wall.
The watercolour is in exceptional condition and has an unbroken provenance, having originally belonged to the Revd. James Bulwer, Cotman’s pupil. The Bulwer collection was described as ‘nearly as rich as that of Dawson Turner in antiquarian material’ and ‘immeasurably more so in artistic quality.’ At least three watercolours from this series were in Bulwer’s collection including two sheets now in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery. It was then owned by Charles Morland Agnew, a partner in Agnew’s, who formed an outstanding collection of early English watercolours. After his death it was acquired by A.T.Loyd for the important collection of old master and British works at Lockinge House in Oxfordshire.
Whilst Cotman’s contemporaries were equivocal about his art, he had been lionised by later painters. Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and John Piper celebrated Cotman in their search for a recognisably British tradition that could be reconciled with developments in modern European painting. The economy, clarity and reductive forms present in Norwich Cathedral: the North Aisle of the Choir perfectly demonstrate why Cotman’s early watercolours had this appeal.
- Laurence Binyon, English Watercolours, London, 1933, p. 191.
- Sydney D. Kitson, The Life of John Sell Cotman, 1982, p. 107.
- Andrew Hemingway, 'Meaning in Cotman's Norfolk subjects', Art History, vol. 7 no. 1, March 1984, p. 71.
- Evelyn Joll, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery: Watercolours and Drawings, 2002, pp. 69, 71; Miklos Rajnai et al, John Sell Cotman 1782-1842, exh cat., London (Victoria and Albert Museum), 1982, no. 62, pp. 91-93, no. 65, pp. 93-95.
- C. F. Bell, 'John Sell Cotman (The Bulwer Collection)', Walker's Quarterly, nos 19-20, 1926 p. 5.
- Evelyn Joll, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery: Watercolours and Drawings, 2002, pp. 69, 71; Miklos Rajnai et al, John Sell Cotman 1782-1842, exhibition catalogue, V&A and elsewhere, 1982, no. 62, pp. 91-93, no. 65, pp. 93-95. The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum’s drawings are C. F. Bell’s nos 6 (Jesus Chapel) and 8 (Interior of the Nave) pp. 21, 22.