'I love this picture because it’s of Yorkshire'

Barnard Castle from Towler Hill, 1806, 13in by 17in, by John Sell Cotman (1782–1842), Leeds City Art Gallery. Bridgeman Images.

Jilly Cooper says:
‘Cotman is the most miraculous painter and I adore trees, and he just seems to capture them in their splendour and variety with such love. Also, I love this picture because it’s of Yorkshire–I basically come from there and have a huge love for the county. A plus is that Walter Scott came here and wrote a poem about it. He is one of my heroes, not only because he wrote like an angel, but also because he lost masses of money. He spent the rest of his life frantically writing to pay off the debts and worrying he might not be able to afford to keep his dogs, which he adored. He was such an honourable man; I like to think he and Cotman met and got on.’

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Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Cotman’s life exemplifies the melancholy truth that a successful career depends a great deal more on contacts than talent. After a promising London start, he chose provincial domesticity and the security of teaching to fame, a choice not helped by depression and a bullying East Anglian patron. He eventually established a family business churning out drawings for pupils to copy. Today, of English watercolourists, he is admired second only to Turner, but when he died, there was not a single obituary.

Cotman is the harmonious complement to Turner’s dynamism. His ability to reduce the complexity of nature, what he called his ‘ficle Dame’, to something so structurally and tonally pleasing appeals to pared modern taste. As his lifelong friend Francis Cholmeley warned him, ‘two-thirds of mankind, you know, mind much more about what is represented than how it is done’. That still applies, but it is significant that his most original watercolours (1805–11) are often praised for their ‘abstract’ qualities, a 20th-century concept. This picture derives from the last of his three visits to Yorkshire, taken between 1803 and 1805.

An early patron’s sister was a Cholmeley of Brandsby, where Cotman was welcomed on equal terms and introduced to the local gentry. Those days were the happiest of his life and ushered in his famous ‘Greta’ period, inspired by the Greta river landscape near Rokeby Park, where he was a guest. Barnard Castle is three miles from Rokeby, overlooking the Tees. Sir Walter Scott was inspired by the same view only a few years later and alludes to it in his epic poem Rokeby.’

This article was first published in Country Life, October 27, 2010