Sunday, September 24, 2006

View from Yarmouth Bridge

John Sell Cotman, Beach Scene, c. 1820

In a recent New York Review of Books, tucked in among the articles on various depressing Middle Eastern political issues, there was an article by Sanford Schwartz about John Sell Cotman. Schwartz regrets that ‘there is still no volume of good reproductions of his pictures in all the mediums he tackled’. Although famous for his watercolours - to the extent that Winsor & Newton use his name as a trademark (they introduced the ‘Cotman’ brand of sable watercolour brushes in 1906) – Cotman’s ‘far less known oils, and to a slightly lesser extent his pencil drawings and etchings often exist on the same level of uncanny harmony and order’.
Among its collection of Cotman watercolours, the Tate has an oil painting, Seashore with Boats (c1808), of which they say ‘the scene here is possibly Cromer beach. Anne Miles, whom Cotman married in 1809, lived two miles away from Cromer and Cotman exhibited four Cromer subjects between 1808 and 1810.’ In this painting Cotman reduces the busy beach to a set of simple flat forms in a manner familiar from his watercolours. Perhaps even more striking for its modern-seeming abstraction is another oil painting in the Tate: Wherries on Breydon (c1808).
Cotman returned to oil painting in the 1820s. There are examples in the Norwich Castle Museum: Dutch Boats off Yarmouth and View from Yarmouth Bridge, looking towards Breydon, just after Sun-set. In connection with the latter, there is a good example of prevailing attitudes to artists like Cotman in a piece written for the Norwich Mercury describing an exhibition at the Norwich Society in 1824. The reviewer felt the landscape had been ‘quitted prematurely by the artist’ and declared rather pompously ‘we are no friends of “sketches” in oil painting’ (quoted by David Blayney Brown in Romantic Landscape: The Norwich School of Painters).

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