Cotman, Prout, Cox, And De Wint – English Water Colour Painters

Cotman’s position among the greatest of the water colour painters—The conditions of his life—His failure from a professional point of view—His gloom—Turner’s helpfulness—Durham Cathedral, Greta Bridge, and buncombe Park—Dieppe and the later drawings–Prout’s Bits for Beginners—The systematisation of artistic production—Cox’s recipes—The monotony of his earlier work—The power of his later drawings—The Welsh, Funeral—De Wint.

WHEN Turner stood, as it were, at the parting of the ways of his career, two kinds of life lay stretched out for him to choose between. He could aim at immediate professional eminence, or he could aim merely at the perfect development of his own powers. We know that he chose the former aim : and the lives of the four artists, of whose works we propose to speak of in this chapter, present many features which, if they do not entirely justify this choice, at least make it easily comprehensible and excusable.

It is doubtful whether Cotman, Prout, Cox, or De Wint had as much choice in the ordering of their lives as Turner had. Indeed, all the evidence goes to show that they strove for immediate professional success as strenuously as Turner. So that if they failed where he succeeded, if Turner’s universal capacity and magnificent energy and courage won for him what the others would have secured if they could, we must be careful not to count their lack of capacity to them as a virtue. Neither Cotman, Prout, Cox, nor De Wint could claim to have renounced worldly success ally more than Turner. But their thwarted, hampered lives show us only too vividly what is the alternative to immediate professional success which the artist has presented him.

Of the four artists we have named, JOHN SELL COTMAN deserves by far the largest share of attention. In point of actual achievement he stands in the very highest rank of English water colour painters. Of all the landscape workers in water colour junior to Turner, he is the only one whose drawings can be put beside Turner’s and be judged upon a footing of equality. Compare Prout, Cox, and De Wint with Turner and one feels at once that they are minor men—that they must be judged by some less exacting standard than that which we apply to Turner’s work. With Cotman this is not the case. He has not the width and range of Turner’s genius, but within his own limits he is every whit as unapproachable as Turner.

Born at Norwich on the 16th May, 1782, he was Turner’s junior by seven years.

Coming to London in 1798 or 1799 for the purposes of study, he made the acquaintance of Turner, Girtin, De Wint, and others of the group of young artists who worked in the evenings at Dr Monro’s in the Adelphi. In 1807 he returned to Norwich, and in 1811 he became president of the Norwich Society of Artists. Besides painting his landscapes, he painted portraits and published by subscription several volumes of etchings of ancient buildings in various parts of England. The first volume appeared in 1811, others in 1817, 1819, and 1822. But though the few artists who were capable of appreciating his powers gave him all the encouragement they could, the public refused to buy his work. If he had had more of the commercial enterprise of Turner he would have given up three-quarters of his time to the painting of big show pieces, artfully designed to startle the world into attention by their audacity and extravagance. As it was, he had nothing to fall back upon except the still more precarious and less well-paid drudgery of private drawing-lessons.

As years went on and the hopes of professional recognition remained unfulfilled, his mind began to give itself up to gloomy apprehensions. A devoted husband and father, he watched the privations of his wife and children with anxiety and something of bitterness. In a letter dated 26th June, 1819, quoted by Mr Binyon in his admirable study of Cotman’s work,’ we get a glimpse of the gloom into which the failure of all his professional hopes had plunged the artist. ” My views in life are so completely blasted,” he wrote to a friend refusing an invitation, ” that I sink under the repeated and constant exertion of body and mind. Every effort has been tried, even without the hope of success ; hence the loss of spirits amounting to despair.

” My eldest son, who is following the same miserable profession with myself, feels the same hopelessness ; and his powers, once so promising, are evidently paralysed, 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.”

There are other letters in existence even more desolate than this. But the tragic cause was merely the commonplace one of poverty. The artist got very few commissions ; his pictures and drawings sold not at all or at ridiculous prices ; he was more and more under the yoke of the drudgery of teaching, which baulked his productivity ; his income was inadequate to the needs of his family. Under these circumstances the development of an artist’s own faculties and the possession of his very ideals are apt to seem, even to himself, something like the selfish gratification of an obstinate and unjustifiable self – indulgence. For the artist’s is no more a profession than the poet’s. It is merely a vocation. The artist must give his life, like the warrior and the moral teachers of mankind. It is only the absence of endowments, the absence of the faintest provision for the support of the artist in the social economy of our nation, that lends a deceptive support to the common notion that art is a profession, like the law, or medicine, or engineering, for instance.

It was during these years of gloom that Cotman’s worst works were produced—those unreal, forced experiments in crude colour. They were done to catch, if possible, the attention of the heedless public. Turner had caught public notice in this way, and Cotman may have felt it a duty to his children to outrage his delicate susceptibilities and exquisite sense of fitness. For colour to the painter is what rhyme and rhythm is to the poet. It is the external form of his work, and the public who judge chiefly by externals are more readily caught by novelty of form than by the intrinsic value of the substance.

It was Turner, who had long recognised Cotman’s genius, who was mainly instrumental in obtaining release for him from the more immediate pressure of material anxieties. In 1834, Turner got him appointed drawing-master at King’s College, London. The work was hard, incessant, and exhausting, but the, very modest income attached to the post was sufficient to lay the spectre of want. From this time Cotman seems to have regained his powers, and some of his most superb drawings date from the closing years of his life. But whether he painted well or ill, the public remained indifferent. He died in 1842, and on 17th and 18th May, 1843, his drawings and pictures were sold by his executors at Christie’s, realising £262, 14s., most of his drawings fetching but a few shillings apiece. The highest price fetched for a water colour being £6, and for an oil £8, 15s.

Thanks to the Reeve Collection, which Mr Colvin’s knowledge and enthusiasm has secured for the Museum, Cotman’s work is admirably represented in the Print Room. Of the early works, both the Durham Cathedral and Croyland Abbey were probably included among the twenty drawings exhibited by the artist at Norwich in 1807. Both have done service as drawing-copies, and as a result are somewhat rubbed and faded. Yet the Durham, as Mr Binyon has said, “remains a noble drawing. It has Girtin’s largeness and serious simplicity, and at the same time a deeper comprehension of the grandeur of the architecture, an intenser feeling for the actual moulding and essential character of the old stone.” The Croyland Abbey, which shows the ruins set up dark against an angry sky, has intensity and grandeur.

The Greta Bridge and Duncombe Park sum up the finest qualities of Cotman’s earlier work. Speaking of the extraordinary charm of colour which Greta Bridge possesses, the same subtle and penetrating critic has observed that “sober is too tame and negative a word for the harmony that pervades it ; it is quiet, it is severe ; yet full of living power in all its quietness, rich and abundant in all its severity.” The Duncombe Park is of ” equal and perhaps rarer charm. Nowhere so perfectly has Cotman painted the grace of trees in spring. The delicate stem of the ash and its fresh leaves traced on the sky are painted firmly, with no second touches to mar their transparency, yet with what sensitive precision, what aerial lightness ! Such a drawing as this makes no loud appeal ; but when the eye has lingered upon it sufficiently for the mind to enter its atmosphere, this vision of spring woods in their solitude, ‘retired as noonday dew,’ seems in-deed to have distilled the secret charm of all such places, and to contain all the beauty of one’s memories, with a beauty heightened and more real.”

The superb Draining Mill, Lincolnshire (dated 1810) shows clearly the affinity of Cotman’s art with Girtin’s most serious moods. But it has an intensity of feeling and a perfection of workmanship which Girtin did not always attain.

Cotman paid his first visit to Normandy in 1817, and after this date his colour becomes warmer and brighter. Perhaps the best example of this phase of his genius is to be found in the Dieppe (3013-1876), at South Kensington, an admirably luminous and vivid drawing.

The later drawings at the British Museum show Cotman’s power of seizing the essential spirit of a scene. His grasp and intimate comprehension of the individuality of trees and of all the dumb and private loveliness of the lonely woods is wonderfully expressed in rapid, flawless drawings like the Deer at Blofield (103), Trees and Pond (116), Dewy Eve (66), and Breaking the Clod (67) ; while his power of rendering the sterner aspects of Nature is shown in The Wold Afloat (129), and Below Langley (131), and in numberless other drawings.

It is difficult to compare Cotman’s impeccable architectural drawings with those of SAMUEL PROUT (1782-1852) without seeming unjust to a very respectable though moderately-gifted craftsman. By an intelligent study of the methods of other painters he managed to master a safe and steady manner of execution, which he applied with great industry to a class of subject which possessed a forcible appeal to well-meaning but dull and half-educated people.

Until about the age of forty we find him chiefly engaged in teaching and in producing works for the use of beginners. Taking the works of the recognised masters, he set himself to generalise their practice, to reduce it to rules and systems, in something of the spirit in which a grammarian would set to work to discover grammatical rules in a language which had developed naturally and spontaneously. But there is this important difference between works like Prout’s ” Bits for Beginners,” ” Rudiments of Landscape with Progressive Studies,” “A Series of Easy Lessons in Landscape Drawing,” etc., and the efforts of a scientific grammarian : Prout’s analysis is merely superficial and mainly directed to immediate practical results. Prout is not concerned to understand the hidden laws of the structure of pictorial language ; he is merely bent on abstracting ‘tips’ and recipes for the production of works which are artistic only in externals, for drawings which ape the manner of expression of artists, while they miss all their wealth of meaning.

There are several drawings by Prout at South Kensington, the largest being Wurzburg (1041—1873 and the Porch of Ratisbon Cathedral 1040—1873). They are very poor in colour, and their heaviness in the shadows fails to give light or luminous effect; their draughtsmanship is wooden and mechanical.

It is true that Mr Ruskin has pronounced Prout to be ” a very great man,” and his renderings of the character of old buildings to be “as perfect and as heartfelt as I can conceive possible.” In another volume of ” Modern Painters,” Mr Ruskin says ” there is no stone drawing, no vitality of architecture like Prout’s.” But perhaps Mr Ruskin had never been able to find time to look at Cotman’s work, and had forgotten such drawings as Turner’s Tintern Abbey.

In much of the work of DAVID Cox (1783-1859) one finds the same servile and mechanical spirit that mars Prout’s work. The wretchedness of the conditions under which these two artists worked no doubt forced on them a mechanical system of production. But the student of art can only deal with results, and to insist on admiring all Cox’ work, because of the noble humility and simplicity which the artist displayed in his private life, would be merely the result of mental confusion.

In the early stages of his career, Cox, like Prout, was a teacher and writer. But where Prout insisted more particularly upon draughtsmanship, Cox insisted on colour and ” effect.” In 1814 Cox published ” A Treatise on Landscape Painting and Effect in Water Colours, from the first Rudiments to the finished Picture, with Examples in Outline Effect and Colouring.” This was illustrated by a number of soft-ground etchings and coloured aquatints. It was followed in 1816 by ” Progressive Lessons in Landscape for young Beginners.” In the large number of drawings by Cox now in the Print Room (from the Henderson Bequest), one can see how industriously the artist put in practice the processes and recipes he had abstracted from the works of other artists. There is certainly some exaggeration, as well as something of exasperation and envy, in John Brett’s remark that ” the daubs and blots of that famous sketcher (David Cox) were just definite enough to suggest . . . the most superficial aspect of things.” But Cox’s way of ” slithering ” over the individuality of objects, of making his rocks as rounded and as soft as his trees and clouds, and his trees and clouds as sharp and hard as his rocks, is irritating to anyone who has learned to use his eyes ; the monotony and sameness of his ” gleams of light ” also suggest the regularity of mechanical production.

There are many drawings by Cox at South Kensington. A Landscape (316—1891) shows a small red-bricked bridge with figures, one on horseback, and a dog ; there are cows standing in the water, and beyond a flat view with cattle in the meadows. It is painted with a clear, crisp touch. In A Corn Field (512) the ragged touch gives a loose look, but it is very clever work. Windsor Castle from Sand-Pit Gate (1018 –1873) has an unsubstantial and unconvincing look, and a monotonous flabbiness of touch ; Dryslyn Castle in the Valley of Toro, South Wales (103-1896) has the same defects. It is hard to get enthusiastic over such works. They seem to want focus, emphasis, some note of insistence to show that the man was keenly interested in something beyond the production of average marketable drawings. One sees that the sufferings and hardships of the artist’s lot had robbed him of all the joy of production, which assuredly is the one gift of Heaven which an artist need not be ashamed to enjoy. Instead of this divine spark of irrepressible joy which should struggle in some incomprehensible way into the spectator’s heart, touching his nature to the higher issues of life, one finds only the dull quiescence and hopeless industry of the humble-minded drawing-master.

One is glad to think that the genuine piety of the artist enabled him to bear the stings and blows of his hard life with inexhaustible patience, and that towards the end his pure and noble spirit plucked up the courage necessary to express itself. In The Challenge : a Storm on a Moor (1427 — 1869), we see that Cox has learned to value the demands for finish and pretty colour of silly dilettanti at their proper worth. He has at last realised that “it is the Spirit of the Almighty that giveth ” him—even the modest, uneducated painter—understanding, and he has determined to express only what he knows and feels to be of import. Unfortunately Cox’s later work is not well represented in the public collections.

But though the later phase of Cox’s art, when the feelings bred of long years of suffering found full expression, are mostly in private collections, the merits of these vivid, intense, and personal drawings have often been insisted upon by eloquent and penetrating critics. One of the most eloquent and convinced of these writers, Mr Frederick Wedmore, speaking of Cox’s later Welsh drawings, has remarked that ” Many artists, since Cox, have been to Bettwys, and some had been there before him ; but the rest have been content to find there what is commonly pretty and what is easily picturesque — for the most part the mere traditional and accepted beauty of falling water, and sky reflected in clear and shallow streams, and sunlight glinting through green leafage—the art of our lightest and emptiest hours—the water-colour of the drawing-room. Cox found other things—the truer characteristics of that remote scenery and of its desolate life : the wild woods heavy with rain, the stone-walled fields, the dogged tramp of the cloaked peasant woman over the wet path, the blown shepherd and huddled flock on the mountain sheep-walk. Cox entered into the spirit of that lonely landscape, simple and humble even in its grandeur.”

Sometimes Cox was not content merely to record an impression, but he retained and intensified it. Then he produced such a work of controlled pathos and deepest gravity as The Welsh Funeral. Of this noble work Mr Wedmore writes: “The figures there are still but landscape painter’s figures : little attempt to individualise them : none that they should greatly impress us. It is out of the landscape alone, and the according movement of the humble troop towards the churchyard, that he has wrung the expression. He painted the picture in 1850: a day of passing storm ; light breaking on the top of Bettwys Crags, that he had painted so often and in so many moods of sunshine or shadow. There is a long space of shadow low on the hillside, where, from among the thick and doleful woodland, the little church lifts its grey stone belfry, and its bell clangs for the dead ; and along the field-path, by the stone-walled fields, the funeral crowd . . . step slowly to the churchyard. He had beheld the scene himself, and felt it intensely.”

DE WINT (1784-1849) being better educated than either Cox or Prout, found the life of teaching less difficult than they did. His pupils were generally drawn from the higher classes of society. His works are not represented in the Print Room, but there is a large collection of them—perhaps too large—at South Kensington. Bray on the Thames, from the Toning Path (11, N.G.), which we reproduce, is a fine manly work showing the influence of Girtin. The View near Oxford (2, N.G.) is forcible, but like many of his sketches has the trees too black. The large Lincoln Cathedral (1021—1873), an ambitious and early work, shows plenty of manual dexterity, but a lack of taste and good sense. The Ruins o f the Bishop’s Palace, Lincoln (21, N.G.) is perhaps a little melodramatic, but the Hayfield, Yorkshire (19, N.G.) is a very fine work, neither too sketchy nor too finished—the two extremes into which De Wint so often fell—and the waggons and horses are put in with vigorous directness. A long narrow composition, Westmoreland Hills, bordering the Ken (20, N.G.) shows haymakers in the foreground. This breezy, strong, manly work is full of movement and is among the most felicitous of De Wint’s pictures now being exhibited at South Kensington.