Anyone who has toyed with painting watercolors knows the name Cotman from the Winsor & Newton’s line of professional and student-grade paints. Of all the great watercolorists, the name Cotman usually doesn’t ring a bell, but it should. Born May 16, 1782, John Sell Cotman painted some of the most beautiful watercolors of the Romantic period in England. Cotman’s Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire (above, from 1803) rivals similar works done by J.M.W. Turner, Cotman’s better known contemporary and colleague. It would be easy to mistake such a Cotman for a Turner—the quality is close, the technique is similar, but, most importantly, they’re both painting at the same turning point in British culture. The same Romantic fascination with ruins that fuels Turner and Cotman exists in the poetry of Wordsworth, Byron, and others. If Rievaulx Abbey had been titled Tintern Abbey, the connection would have been complete.
Cotman’s a great “test case” for Turner, the more famous artist. Why did the reputations of two artists so similar diverge? For one thing, Turner had John Ruskin to champion him critically. Nobody ever stood up for Cotman. Turner’s financial success and lack of family responsibilities freed him in a way that Cotman’s need to provide for his family, which required him to take up teaching, limited his opportunities. Another difference that I see in their work lies in the subject matter. While Turner turned to the seas, Cotman turned inland in works such as Ruins and Houses, North Wales (above, from 1800-1802). Again, if you titled this The Ruined Cottage, all kinds of Wordsworthian bells would jingle in my head. Turner’s Romanticism follows a marine course while Cotman goes rustic, which may be truer to the British Romantics, or at least the Wordsworthian strain, but didn’t offer as many picturesque opportunities that a moneyed, elite buying public would pay for.
Interestingly, both Cotman and Turner published etched editions of their works called Liber Studiorum. Turner etched his version in 1807, looking to expand his public and develop an international reputation through reproductions that couldn’t be generated by exhibitions of his original works. Cotman prints his version in 1838, just four years before his death, hoping to ease his financial woes. Cotman The Devil's Bridge, Cardiganshire (above, from Liber Studiorum: A Series of Sketches and Studies, from 1838) shows Cotman’s skill at etching as well as his continued eye for the Romantic ruin—here the arresting view of the strikingly named Devil’s Bridge. Fortunately, Cotman’s art found an audience in the Victorian era, as Ruskin’s promotion of Turner led critics to “discover” similar artists. If you’re ever in an art store and find yourself in the watercolor aisle, skip over the Van Gogh and Rembrandt brands and muse for a moment on Cotman.