Discovering Paintings – Cotman

(c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Sell Cotman ‘The Mishap’ (1824-28) : Norwich City Art Gallery
Cotman has been a favourite artist of mine for a very long time and continues to intrigue me. I grew up in Suffolk, in the rural north of that county. The painting collection at nearby Norwich included many works by the ‘Norwich School’ – of which Cotman, along with John ‘Old’ Crome and others, were leading members – and their work reflected my own experience and love for the rolling and intimate landscape of the area. For my undergraduate dissertation I explored in some depth the ‘reserve’ collection of Norwich School works at the Norwich Art Gallery – an exhilarating and formative period for me personally.
In exploring the many paintings, watercolours, and drawings, I found Cotman particularly fascinating – and in the works on paper I found particular resonance. I am not alone as the majority of works illustrated in art history books are his works on paper. But the work illustrated here shows a different side to Cotman – one that is more intimate and, I think, humorous. In some respects it is of the same intimacy, with the countryside, its activities, and its people, as is seen in, for instance, Constable’s ‘Haywain’ – another East Anglian artist of the period. The ‘short’ brush-strokes and thick paint is typical of Norwich School artists but in this work there is an intriguing extra element – focussed on the right-hand side of the painting. Here there is a difference between Constable’s depiction of a farm-cart and that of Cotman – Constable’s is a well-maintained vehicle pausing in the river to ‘refresh’ the wooden wheels – Cotman’s cart is apparently not well-maintained, the wood of the wheels are clearly not ‘refreshed’ and have fallen off when attempting to cross the stream. To be fair, the stream in Cotman’s work is deep, narrow, and between steep banks whereas Constable’s river has no steep banks. Mishaps of this sort must have been a common occurrence and hazard, as with to-days farm tractors and carts, but such occurrences are not usually recorded in the early nineteenth century. I find it not only humorous but very human. Another element, on the right hand side of the work, is important, and reflects Cotman’s familiarity with seventeenth century Dutch landscape works, seen in the collection of his patron, the Yarmouth banker Dawson Turner. That is the black bird, probably a raven, perched at the top of a tree – a warning of tragedy and an omen of human frailty. Of course all these elements in the paintings, including the tall dead tree on the right hand side and the sloping stones on the left hand side, towards the bottom of the painting, are part of traditional ‘composition’ – focussing and leading the spectator’s eye – of an oval within the rectangle of the canvas.
This work – not one of Cotman’s more famous works or striking in any way – is another hidden treasure in our art galleries; perhaps more indicative of the human condition than more showy, and more shown, works.

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DISCOVERING PAINTINGS : Turner, Turnips, & Iron


Ploughing Up Turnips, near Slough ('Windsor') exhibited 1809 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

 J M W Turner : ‘Ploughing up Turnips near Slough’ : exh 1809  : Tate Britain.

The recent film ‘Mr Turner’ gave an intriguing glimpse into the complex nature and life of J M W Turner – an artist whose work is far more than  the usual illustrated works such as ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed – the Great Western Railway’ or ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. On the surface the painting titled ‘Ploughing up Turnips near Slough’ seems worlds away from those other paintings – more like a comfortable, money spinning, essay in a seventeenth century Dutch style aimed at a then current popular market for such subjects. In one respect that is correct – Turner was a shrewd business man. In another respect it does conform to a strand in seventeenth century Dutch painting – a moralising tale. This painting is in the Tate Britain collection and the catalogue contains a really good explanatory comment :-                                                                                                                                                                                         “Windsor Castle and Eton College (to the right) rise across the Thames Valley, although Turner only mentioned Slough in his original title. Given the conditions of national self-sufficiency imposed by the Napoleonic Wars, the painting has been seen as a celebration of progressive agriculture in an Arcadian English setting, beneath the benign gaze of ‘Farmer’ George III. Details such as the nursing mother, the overseer with his back to us, the men attending to a broken plough and the woman bent double to grub up the turnip roots suggest a more difficult reality, and Turner’s sympathy for the participants.”                                                                                                                  Looked at in this light we see that the painting is alongside such works as ‘Rain Steam and Speed’, in the National Gallery London collection, in being concerned with contemporary reality – a sort of social realism. This also is representative of the importance of iron – this time the creation of Brunel’s Great Western Railway.

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 J M W Turner : ‘Rain, Steam, & Speed – the Great Western Railway’ : c1843 : Nat Gal London.

Another work of Turner’s, again in the Tate Britain collection, reveals the same concern for social reality as the previous two paintings – A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Pony’.

A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Poney exhibited 1807 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

J M W Turner : A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Pony’ : exh 1807 : Tate Britain. 

This reminds us that iron was still vitally important to the rural, agricultural economy and reflects the difficulties referred to in the ploughing painting caused by the ‘austerity’ of the period. The contemporary economy was still reliant upon an agricultural and rural life – but things were hard for both the blacksmith and the butcher. The connecting link between the butcher painting and ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed’ is the essential necessity for iron and the increasing demand upon that material in a changing world.

David Addison. 25th may 2015.

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Jan Steen (attrib) : ‘The Fat Kitchen : c1650        Jan Steen (attrib) : The Lean Kitchen : c1650

This pair of paintings, attributed to the seventeenth century Dutch artist Jan Steen, are part of the important collection of paintings at Cheltenham Art Gallery. They have intrigued me for years – from the first day I stepped into the Art Gallery as a member of staff many years ago. They would have been commissioned as a pair – possibly to hang both sides of a fireplace – and are good examples of the ‘moralising’ works produced during the seventeenth century by Dutch painters. By the seventeenth century the northern provinces of the Netherlands, the most important being Holland, had thrown off the yoke of the Spanish Kings rule and had become a separate dominion.  In so doing they had declared themselves a Protestant Republic which had a fundamental effect upon art and artists and at the same time it was developing its strong mercantile and trading activities. The result was a rapid development of an urban society and of an urban middle-class – leading to the familiar rows of tall houses along the canals.  These paintings reflect this new society. The market for paintings changed from patrons being the Roman Catholic Church and wealthy Corporations and individuals to this less wealthy, but comfortable and ever expanding, Middle-Class living in buildings of more modest proportions. The other great change was in subject matter – Protestantism banned what they saw as the heretical excesses of Catholic religious paintings, including the considerable market in altar-pieces and other traditional ‘Catholic’ subject matter. The requirement and demand now was for smaller works such as still-life, portraits, and ‘moralising’ paintings. These two works fall into this latter category – the evils of gluttony and excess with its companion, poverty and starvation. Steen has also introduced a personal element – in the lean kitchen can be seen hanging on the left hand side an artist’s palette suggesting that the artist’s lot is not always a happy one.

David Addison. May 25th 2015.

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Mr Druett

Samuel de Wilde Mr Suett as Dicky Gossip in ‘My Grandmother’ : 1797 : Ashmolean

Every now and again I come across a painting which I have never really stopped to look at before – however well I may think I know the gallery. The painting may not be  large, or colourful, or dramatic – and it probably is not on the ‘hit list’ of must see paintings. Preparing for my hour long talks on single works, ‘Just One Painting’, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford I came across one such painting – the painting here illustrated. Tucked away in a rather tucked away gallery devoted to eighteenth century Fine and Applied Art, a delightful treasure-house, I suddenly noticed this rather insignificant work.  I began to ask myself the same question I ask my, usually adult, students – What do you actually see? Here was a man, looking rather jovial, who appeared to be a tradesman or craftsman of some sort.  The next query was why should anyone commission a painting of this workman? Perhaps a closer examination of the work might reveal useful information?  On closer inspection the man appeared to have in his workman’s apron an odd collection of tools, including a saw and a pair of shears or large scissors – no obvious answer here!    I then thought I had better squint at the label in hope of enlightenment – where I found that this was a painting of an actor, Dicky Suett, in a character role in a play ‘The Grandmother ‘ written by the nobly named ‘Prince Hoare’.   The character he was playing was a certain ‘Dicky Gossip’. OK – I had gone some way but not far enough. So I went away and began to search for further enlightenment – which led me to a world far removed from the respectable and staid ethos of the Ashmolean Museum with it’s usually august painters and paintings, and it’s heroic subjects and famous and important people.   This was the world of eighteenth and early nineteenth century theatre. In this context I knew about the ‘stars’ of the dramatic scene of that period – the actor/producer and impresario David Garrick, a portrait of whom hangs in another of the Ashmolean galleries, and such people as Sarah Siddons, famously portrayed by Thomas Gainsborough. I then remembered Hogarth’s painting of the controversial play ‘The Beggars Opera’, by John Gay. But this work, not by a famous painter but by someone I knew little about, ?Samuel ……. I dug further and found that the artist was better known for his respectable portraits of respectable people but that he had also been commissioned to paint a series of paintings of ‘character actors’ famous in the theatre-going world of the eighteenth century.    The theatre in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was a thriving, controversial, and often riotous part of social life at the time. London had many theatres and provincial centres aimed to have at least one theatre in their town or city. For most people characters like Dicky Suett were well known and sought after. Suett had been a chorister at Westminster Abbey, where he learnt his singing and acting skills – as did several of his fellow actors.   ‘The Grandmother ‘ was a typical eighteenth century, rather ribald, sort of musical play – with ‘character’ parts and ‘character’ performers – Dicky Suett being one of the best. Trying to unearth the play is not that easy – but possible.  The main character, who from time to time burst into song, was this Dicky Gossip – who had contrived to be a master of many skills, barber, carpenter, surgeon, apothecary, and so on. He claimed that all these skills were linked – barber could lead to dressing wounds – as apothecary he could provide medicine for ailments, keeping people alive – hopefully for a long, and to him, a profitable time – if and when he failed to keep them alive he could provide a coffin – and a relative, who was in the ‘family firm’, could dig the grave and be the Undertaker. In fact he could do everything! Somebody had commissioned this painting – which would have been popular at the time but in Victorian respectable circles would have been considered not ‘respectable’ and thus most such paintings have been lost.

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