A sense of place

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Faye Kalloniatis and Naomi Kitchen lead you into the dreamy landscape of a watercolourist


Born in Norwich, Cotman studied in London, becoming drawings master at King's College, and displaying work at the Royal Academy. Returning to Norwich he became president of the Norwich Society of Artists. He married, fathering five children, three of whom became artists. Cotman died in London in relative obscurity, his talent not appreciated until the early 20th century.

This watercolour recreates the rural solitude and serenity of the Greta area of North Yorkshire, where its artist, John Sell Cotman, spent time in 1805. During one of his many drawing trips he stayed at the inn (seen here on the left side of the picture).

This particular trip produced some of his best-known and most accomplished work -including the 1805 watercolour of Greta Bridge (smaller picture) and the later 1810 version, shown here. The Yorkshire landscape depicted in his paintings inspired not only artists but also writers, including Sir Walter Scott, who praised its beauty and tranquillity.

Cotman's composition is perfectly balanced. Greta Bridge, with its striking, single arch, runs horizontally across the picture, simultaneously dividing it in two and yet also uniting it into a single scene.

Below the bridge, the River Greta, with its rocky intrusions, dominates the foreground, while above the bridge we see trees, buildings, mountain ridge and sky. However, Cotman unifies all these features within the landscape: the bridge is reflected onto the water in the foreground, while, through the bridge's arch, the distant riverbank and trees, with their reflections falling into the river, are made visible.

The cows under the bridge are an inspired addition to the later painting.

They provide a focal point, which Cotman has cleverly emphasised by giving them long shadows, which are reflected in the tranquil water. Greta Bridge was based on Cotman's direct observation of the Greta area in Rokeby Park; but his approach when painting the landscape was not to record a scene in detail. Rather, he worked to capture the feeling and atmosphere of a place through use of pattern and abstract shapes. His river bank and boulders are smooth, rounded shapes peppered with specks of colour; his trees, too, are rounded and block-like, in varying shades of green and brown. The distant mountain ridge is also softly moulded.

This mountain shows Cotman taking artistic licence - it was not really there (as is clear from the earlier version in which the space is occupied by a cloud). Its inclusion in the 1810 watercolour helped Cotman to strengthen the sense of perspective and also to draw the eye "through" the landscape - from the rocks in the foreground, through the bridge and trees, to the mountain beyond. Cotman's technique of using colour washes accentuates the smooth roundness of the landscape.

Unlike some of the short, dash-like brushstrokes in the 1805 version (especially on the right-hand river bank), here Cotman's washes soften the landscape. Similarly, the sky is gently muted, losing the individual clouds of the earlier version. In this way, Cotman smoothes and softens the landscape, thus deepening the mood of peace and tranquillity. This is heightened by his use of blues, browns, yellows and greens - in contrast to the more monochromatic, grey-blue colours of the 1805 work.

The bridge was a favourite subject for Cotman. He made many studies of bridges throughout his career, admiring how they represent meeting points, landmarks for travellers, and points of reference on maps where rivers and roads meet. Moreover, a bridge within a landscape - a man-made feature in a natural setting -represents a harmonious connection between man and nature. Hence, as a symbol, the bridge is full of significance.

In this watercolour, the bridge is central. It appears solidly grounded but yet has a fragility about it, especially in the central section, which spans the river. Its arch represents a feat of engineering. Built in 1773, Greta Bridge replaced a much earlier Roman bridge of the same design.

Cotman admired this marrying of ancient and modern in the bridge's design and construction.

This watercolour belongs to the Norwich School, of which Cotman was one of the most prominent exponents. The Norwich Society of Artists was akin to London's Royal Academy; it was established in the 19th century and was the first of its kind outside London. It consisted of artists who, at least for part of their careers, lived and worked in Norwich. The Society also organised exhibitions at which these artists showed their work.

The Norwich School was characterised by its focus on and approach to the landscape. It moved away from the French and Italian tradition of depicting the landscape as an imaginary, classical setting and instead sought to paint real landscapes. It was heavily influenced by Dutch landscape paintings, which were filled with features reminiscent of Norfolk, such as waterways, open skies and windmills.

Within this Society, Cotman was the leading watercolourist, yet his work only skirted the edges of fame and recognition and he remained relatively unknown during his lifetime - not helped by his depressive personality and sometimes precarious financial affairs. It was not until the 20th century that his reputation grew and he became regarded by some as Turner's equal.

Even so, his undoubted accomplishments as a watercolourist still remain relatively obscured.

l The two versions of Greta Bridge are on display together for the first time in "Landscape 200", an exhibition celebrating the bi-centenery of the Norwich Society of Artists, at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery until June 26.

"Greta Bridge, Yorkshire, 1810" is part of the permanent collection at Norwich Castle.

Tel: 01603 493625 to enquire if Greta Bridge is on display or to make a viewing appointment. It can also be found at: www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk by accessing NOAH, Norfolk online access to heritage.


John Sell Cotman 1782-1842 byAndrew Moore Norfolk Museums Service, out of print John Sell Cotman, edited by Miklos Rajnai Herbert Press, out of print The Norwich School of Artists by Andrew Moore, Norfolk Museums Service, out of print

Faye Kalloniatis is is museum learning manager and Naomi Kitchen is learning officer at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, part of the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service




Using Wordsworth's Romantic poetry, which is contemporary with Cotman's work, match lines from his imagery of the Yorkshire landscape with the view of Greta Bridge. Alternatively, using the painting, create a mind map of words which describe the scene and use this to create poetry in the style of Wordsworth.

Art and design


Compare the two versions of Greta Bridge. Find similarities and differences and discuss preferences in the different uses of colour, light and techniques in each version. Cotman taught his students watercolour by allowing them to copy his own work in close detail. Set up a drawing masterclass where pupils copy Greta Bridge, and create a gallery of copied art. In order to keep his colour distinct in his painting, Cotman allowed each section of colour to dry before adding the next. Experiment with this by painting sections of patterns in watercolour.

KS 12

Create a mixed-media landscape using a variety of cut and torn papers and materials. Colours can be built up using layers of tissue paper to create depth. Special foiled paper can be used to create the effect of water.

Landscapes could also be made using found, natural objects such as leaves, herbs, and tree bark.


Use Cotman's Greta Bridge as part of a study in QCA scheme 7C, "Recreating Landscapes". Investigate the artist's methods and intentions and how he has created mood and feeling in his work.

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