John Sell Cotman

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John Sell Cotman
Clint - Portrait of John Sell Cotman.jpg
Portrait by Alfred Clint, Norfolk Museums Collections
Born(1782-05-16)16 May 1782
Norwich, England
Died24 May 1842(1842-05-24) (aged 60)
London, England
Known forLandscape painting
MovementNorwich School of painters

John Sell Cotman (16 May 1782 – 24 July 1842) was an English marine and landscape painter, etcher, illustrator, author and a leading member of the Norwich School of painters.

Born in Norwich, the son of a silk merchant and lace dealer, Cotman was educated at the Norwich Grammar School. He showed an early talent for art. It was intended that he followed his father into the family business but, intent on a career in art, he moved to London in 1798, where he met artists such as J. M. W. Turner, Peter de Wint and Thomas Girtin, whose sketching club he joined, and whom he travelled with to Wales and Surrey. By 1800 he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy, showing scenes of the Welsh countryside there in 1801 and 1802. His drawing expeditions took him throughout southern Britain, and to Yorkshire, where he stayed with the Cholmeley family during the three summers of 1803–5.

His sons Miles Edmund and John Joseph Cotman became notable painters in their own right.


Early years[edit]

St Mary Coslany, Norwich.

John Sell Cotman was born in Norwich, on 16 May 1782, the son of Edmund Cotman, a prosperous silk merchant and lace dealer, and his wife Ann Sell. They were married on 3 April 1781 at St. Mary Coslany, Norwich, the same church that their son John Sell was baptised on 9 June 1782. The family name was written as Cottman in the parish baptism record, which has survived.[1][2]

House at St Stephen's Road, Norwich (1794), British Museum. It is considered to be the earliest surviving work by John Sell Cotman, produced when he was 12.

Little is known of Cotman's boyhood or life with his family in Norwich. He was educated at the Norwich Grammar School.[3] He showed a talent for art from an early age and would often go out on frequent drawing trips into the countryside around Norwich and the North Norfolk coast.[4][5] His father intended him to go into the family business but instead, intent on a career in art. Edmund Cotman sought advice about his son's prospects from the artist John Opie, who replied "let him rather black boots than follow the profession of an artist".[5]

He moved to London in 1798, and lived at 28, Gerrard Street, Soho,[6] initially making a living through commissions from print-sellers, and his sketches at Rudulph Ackerman's print shop at 96, The Strand were studied by the artist John Thirtle when a young man.[7][8] He first came under the patronage of Dr. Thomas Munro, physician to the Bridewell and Bethlehem Hospitals, whose house in Adelphi Terrace was a studio and a meeting place for artists, including the young J. M. W. Turner.[7] There Cotman may have made the acquaintance of Turner, Peter de Wint and Thomas Girtin, who became an influential figure in his artistic development. The historian William Frederick Dickes stated in The Norwich School of Painting that, even though evidence is lacking, Cotman may possibly joined the sketching club started by Girtin.[9] During the summer of 1799 he went on a drawing expedition with him to Surrey, and the following spring they went on a sketching trip to Wales.[6]

In 1800, Cotman exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time, showing five scenes of Surrey and one of Harlech Castle,[6] and exhibiting other Welsh scenes at the Royal Academy in 1801 and 1802.[10] In 1800, he was awarded an honorary palette by the Society of Arts. He continued to exhibit at the Academy until 1806, and went on extended drawing trips through England and Wales. In the three summers of 1803–5, he stayed with the Cholmeley family at Brandsby Hall in Yorkshire. On the last of these three visits, he made a series of watercolours of the River Greta.[11]

Return to Norwich[edit]

While based in London, Cotman had spent some time in Norwich, and in September 1802 he advertised his services as teacher of drawing in the Norwich Mercury.[12] In 1806, he returned to live in Norwich. He joined the Norwich Society of Artists and exhibited 20 works, including six portraits, at the society's exhibition in 1807.[13] In 1808, the 67 works he exhibited included oil paintings.[4] He became President of the Society in 1811.

His main living came from teaching art and one of his students, the local antiquary Dawson Turner, became a good friend, introducing him to many pupils and collaborating on one of his books.[citation needed] As part of his teaching Cotman operated his own version of a watercolour subscription library, so that his pupils could take home his drawings to copy. Many of his works bear numbers related to this scheme.[14]

In 1811, his first set of etchings was published; all but one of the subjects were architectural, mostly buildings in Yorkshire.[15] From 1812 to 1820, he published a set of 60 etchings of the ancient buildings of Norfolk.[16] In 1817, 1818, and 1820, he visited Normandy with Dawson Turner, making drawings of buildings. Two years later he published a set of 100 etchings based on sketches made during his Normandy tour.[17] After these visits, the character of his paintings changed, the later ones being brighter in colour.[18]

Cotman's house in St Martin's Plain, Norwich

From 1812 to 1823, Cotman lived on the coast at Great Yarmouth, where he studied shipping and mastered the form of waves. Some of his finest marine pieces date from this time.[19] He returned to Norwich in 1824, hoping to improve his financial position, and moved into a large house in St Martin's Plain, opposite the Bishop's Palace, where he built up a collection of prints, books, armour and many models of ships to aid his compositions.[20] He showed work from 1823 to 1825 at the Norwich Society of Artists' annual exhibitions.

In 1825, Cotman became an Associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours and was a frequent exhibitor there until 1839. However he was driven to despair by his constant financial struggles.

King's College, London[edit]

In January 1834, Cotman was appointed Master of Landscape Drawing at King's College School in London, partly on the recommendation of J. M. W. Turner. In 1836, his son Miles Edmund Cotman was appointed to assist him. The poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of his pupils. In London, Cotman was friends with the artists James Stark, George Cattermole, Samuel Prout and Cornelius Varley. In 1836, he became an honorary member of the Institute of British Architects. In 1838, all of his etchings were published by Henry George Bohn, including "Liber Studiorum".

Cotman died in July 1842, and was buried in the cemetery at St. John's Wood Chapel. All his works and collection of prints and books were sold by auction at Christie's, realising just over £525 – a relatively paltry sum.

Family life[edit]

John Sell Cotman, Mrs Edmund Miles and Ann Miles in the Miles family farmhouse, Felbrigg, Norfolk by John Thirtle (1807), Norfolk Museums Collections

John Sell Cotman married Ann Miles, one of four daughters of a Felbrigg farmer. They were married at Felbrigg parish church near Cromer on 6 January 1809.[21][14] Cotman remained devoted to his wife throughout their married life together.[22] They moved to London during the spring of 1809,[23] and their eldest child Miles Edmund Cotman was born on 5 February the following year.[24] After the family moved to Great Yarmouth in April 1812,[25] their daughter Ann was born in July 1812, followed by three more sons, John Joseph Cotman, (Francis) Walter, and Alfred Henry. who were born in 1814, 1816 and 1819 respectively.[26] A sixth daughter was born in 1822.[14]

Cotman painted The Toy Boat, a watercolour of himself and his daughter, in c. 1815. He and his children sailed around the Yarmouth area on their boat 'Jessie' when they were older.[27]

His depression affected his family, as revealed in a letter dated 26 June 1829:

My eldest son, who is following the same miserable profession with myself feels the same hopelessness; and his powers, once so promising, are evidently paralized, and his health and spirits gone. My amiable and deserving wife bears her part with fortitude. But the worm is there. My children cannot but feel the contagion. As a husband and father, bound by every tie human and divine to cherish and protect them, I leave you to suppose how impossible it must be for me to feel one joy divided from them. I watch them, and they me, narrowly; and I see enough to make me broken-hearted.

— John Sell Cotman, (Lawrence Binyon, John Sell Cotman)[28]

In 1834, his eldest son Miles Edmund remained in Norwich to work as an art teacher, when the rest of the Cotman family moved to London upon the appointment of John Sell Cotman as a Professor of Drawing at King's College.[29] A year after his move to London, Mile Edmund himself moved to London, becoming his father's assistant after his brother John Joseph moved back to Norwich.[30] His sons Miles Edmund and John Joseph Cotman later became painters of note. Miles Edmund succeeded his father as drawing master at King's College in 1843.[31]

Last years[edit]

John Joseph Cotman's chalk drawing of his father, made during his last visit to Norfolk in 1841, National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1841, during the last twelve months of his life, Cotman resumed correspondence with Dawson Turner.[32] Granted a fortnight's leave from King's College, he journeyed from London to Great Yarmouth by ship and then on to Norwich, ultimately staying in Norfolk for two months before returning to the capital.[33] That year he made chalk drawings of Norwich and the Norfolk countryside, the dates of which allow his journey around the county to be traced:[34] his sketches included Itteringham, 12 November and Storm off Cromer.[35] During this period he was able to visit his elderly father at Thorpe St Andrew, when he probably began preparatory work for a painting, entitled From my Father's House at Thorpe. His last oil painting—dated 18 January 1842 and never completed—was A View of the Norwich River.[36][37]

During the last six months of his life, due to deteriorating health, Cotman wrote no letters and produced no dated drawings. He died "of natural decay" on 24 July 1842 and was interred in the cemetery of St John's Wood Chapel, London. In his will he left everything to his wife, and enabled her to receive a pension that was paid to her and her descendants.[38][37] His paintings and drawings were all sold off from May 1843 onwards, fetching lower and lower prices for his financially troubled family as the sales continued.[39]


Over 600 of his watercolours and drawings were bought by James Reeve, who in 1902 sold more than half of them to the British Museum:[40] the remainder of his collection was acquired by the Norwich Castle from the collection of the Norfolk industrialist Russell Colman.[41] His works are on public display in Norwich, where well over 2,000 works are held, as well as at the Leeds Art Gallery, the Tate Gallery, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and other regional centres. In the United States, there are works by Cotman at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, and in other galleries around the country.

Cotman's work was not thought to be important during his lifetime, and he made little from sales of his paintings and drawings.[31] The sale of his works and library took place over five days at Christie's. His drawings and pictures fetched £260, his collection of books and art was sold off for £300 and the sum total for his prints was £30.[42]

His architectural etchings have long been considered as a valuable records of his passion for archaeology.[31]


The 1887 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography noted that Cotman's reputation had improved over time, and described him as "one of the most original and versatile of English artists of the first half of this century, a draughtsman and colourist of exceptional gifts, a water-colourist worthy to be ranked among the greater men, and excellent whether as a painter of land or sea".[42]

A hundred of Cotman's works were exhibited at Norwich by the Norwich Art Circle in 1888, the first time his collected works had been shown in public. The exhibition catalogue (described by the historian H.M. Cundall as "a valuable memoir") was written by James Reeve, and the exhibition led to a critical appraisal of his output and secured a second exhibition that year at the Burlington Fine Arts Club.[43][44]

The art historians Lawrence Binyon and William Dickes both wrote extensively about Cotman's oil paintings and watercolours. His oils were first exhibited when they were shown at the Tate Gallery, London in 1922 [45] According to his biographer Sydney Kitson, Cotman's reputation was enhanced by The Water-Colour Drawings of John Sell Cotman by Paul Oppé, which appeared in a special edition of The Studio in 1923.[46]

Published works[edit]




  1. ^ "John Sell Cotman in "Archdeacons transcripts for Norwich parishes, 1600-1812". FamilySearch. Retrieved 25 November 2019. (registration required)
  2. ^ "Baptisms, Marriages and Burials (Norwich parishes 1771-1788) in "Archdeacons transcripts for Norwich parishes, 1600-1812"". FamilySearch. Retrieved 25 November 2019. (registration required)
  3. ^ Cundall 1920, pp. 1, 17.
  4. ^ a b Binyon 1897, p. 49.
  5. ^ a b Dickes 1905, p. 248.
  6. ^ a b c Dickes 1905, p. 250.
  7. ^ a b Dickes 1905, p. 249.
  8. ^ Clifford 1965, p. 24.
  9. ^ Dickes 1905, pp. 249–250.
  10. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 50.
  11. ^ Lyles & Hamlyn 1997, p. 206.
  12. ^ Binyon 1897, pp. 52–52.
  13. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 56.
  14. ^ a b c Binyon 1897, p. 60.
  15. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 64.
  16. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 67.
  17. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 71.
  18. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 72.
  19. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 75.
  20. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 76.
  21. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 127.
  22. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 128.
  23. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 129.
  24. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 132.
  25. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 159.
  26. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 164.
  27. ^ Kitson 1937, pp. 75–6.
  28. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 80.
  29. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 85.
  30. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 92.
  31. ^ a b c Chisholm 1911.
  32. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 352.
  33. ^ Kitson 1937, pp. 354–355.
  34. ^ Kitson 1937, pp. 355, 358.
  35. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 362.
  36. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 360.
  37. ^ a b Cundall & 1920, p. 23.
  38. ^ Kitson 1937, pp. 363–366.
  39. ^ Kitson 1937, pp. 367–368.
  40. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 369.
  41. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 370.
  42. ^ a b Stephen 1887.
  43. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 371.
  44. ^ Cundall 1920, pp. 22–23.
  45. ^ Kitson 1937, pp. 372.
  46. ^ Kitson 1937, pp. 372–373.
  47. ^ a b Ray 1976, p. 49.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]



  • Biography by Bruce MacEvoy from