John Sell Cotman

Volunteer Brian Richardson explores Leeds architect Sydney Kitson’s critical eye in assessing the watercolours of John Sell Cotman.

One of the many places visited by Sydney Kitson (1871–1937) as he researched information on John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) for his biography of the artist, was Thonock Hall in Lincolnshire. This house, now demolished, was in Kitson’s time the home of an older collector of watercolours, Sir Hickman Beckett Bacon (1855–1945). ‘Hicky’, as he was affectionately known, was a country squire and philanthropist whose many interests – apart from paintings and decorative art – included yachting and driving fast cars.

Kitson visited Thonock to take notes on Bacon’s Cotman works on at least three occasions: in August 1927, with his nephew Robert Hawthorn Kitson; in September 1929, this time “on a motor tour with the Yorkshire artist and collector Norman Darnton Lupton”, and again in September of the following year.

Kitson’s comments, found in one of his notebooks in the Leeds Art Gallery archive, give fascinating glimpses into his personal judgement and of his own artistic skills. In 1929 and 1930, he is very enthusiastic about some of the Cotman watercolours. New Bridge, Durham (painted 1806–08) is judged ‘a superb drawing, large in scale, perfectly balanced, admirable in tone. Shows supreme confidence & delight – in the first flight of JSC drawings’. Old Battersea Bridge (1810), is ‘Strong in colour – fine, if crude – real developed Cotman.’ A Waterfall (1803), derived from a visit to Wales, is given Kitson’s top rating of three stars with the comment: ‘The colours are very fresh – beautiful effect of falling water & mist rising from it.’

Kitson adds his own sketch of this last painting in pen and ink. He had studied architectural drawing – there is a photo of him sketching a medieval church in Verona in 1896 and looking very dapper – and his copies, rapidly made though they must have been, give a strong sense of light, shade and perspective.

Kitson's sketch of a Waterfall

Kitson’s sketch of Cotman’s “A Waterfall”, painted in 1803.

However, Kitson also expresses reservations. Already on his first visit to Thonock, he finds ‘the very early watercolours muddy, gummy & unattractive’. A scene showing the impact of the Industrial Revolution in Coalbrookdale, later entitled Bedlam Furnace (c. 1802–04), an unusual subject for Cotman, is ‘very beautiful’, but also ‘rather wiped & worried’. In 1930, Kitson added: ‘on seeing this again I thought it a very poor effort, theatrical, sentimental, & technically raw’. In 1929, the watercolour Brecknock (Castle Bridge, Brecon, 1801) is found ‘rather muddy & worried, but fine’; then in 1930 ‘this seemed increasingly unsatisfying’. Again, Kitson recorded the original in a sketch.

Kitson's sketch of Brecknock

Kitson’s sketch of Cotman’s “Brecknock” – Castle Bridge, Brecon, 1801.

Kitson’s professional training led him to comment tersely on the romantic but elongated image of Tintern Abbey by moonlight (1801–02): ‘architecture not understood’. Similarly, a sea piece ‘shows an imperfect knowledge of ship-construction’.

Kitson described his obsessive researches as Cotmania, but his comments about ‘Hicky’’s Cotmans show that he had a discerning eye – and a particular dislike of ‘muddiness’. There is no evidence that his reservations were tinged with any envy of a collection that had been put together before his own. While Kitson was certainly a Cotmaniac, he did not believe that everything Cotman painted was perfect.

By Brian Richardson, Kitson Archive Volunteer, Leeds Art Gallery.

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