John Sell Cotman

John Sell Cotman (16 May 1782 – 24 July 1842) was an English marine and landscape painter, etcher, illustrator, author and a leading member of the Norwich School of painters.

John Sell Cotman
Clint - Portrait of John Sell Cotman.jpg
Portrait by Alfred Clint (undated), Norfolk Museums Collections
Born(1782-05-16)16 May 1782
Died24 May 1842(1842-05-24) (aged 60)
Known forLandscape painting
MovementNorwich School of painters

Born in Norwich, the son of a silk merchant and lace dealer, Cotman was educated at the Norwich Grammar School. He showed an early talent for art. It was intended that he followed his father into the family business but, intent on a career in art, he moved to London in 1798, where he met artists such as J. M. W. Turner, Peter de Wint and Thomas Girtin, whose sketching club he joined, and whom he travelled with to Wales and Surrey. By 1800 he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy, showing scenes of the Welsh countryside there in 1801 and 1802. His drawing expeditions took him throughout southern Britain, including Yorkshire, where he stayed with the Cholmeley family during the three summers of 1803–5.


Early yearsEdit

St Mary Coslany, Norwich

John Sell Cotman was born in Norwich, on 16 May 1782, the son of Edmund Cotman, a prosperous silk merchant and lace dealer, and his wife Ann Sell. They were married on 3 April 1781 at St. Mary Coslany, Norwich, the same church that their son John Sell was baptised on 9 June 1782. The family name was written as Cottman in the parish baptism record, which has survived.[1][2]

Cotman was educated at the Norwich Grammar School.[3] He showed a talent for art from an early age and would often go out on frequent drawing trips into the countryside around Norwich.[4]

His father intended him to go into the family business but instead, intent on a career in art, he moved to London in 1798, initially making a living through commissions from print-sellers. He came under the patronage of Dr. Thomas Munro, physician to the Bridewell and Bethlehem Hospitals, whose house in Adelphi Terrace was a studio and a meeting place for artists. There, Cotman made the acquaintance of the artists J. M. W. Turner, Peter de Wint and Thomas Girtin, who became an influential figure in his artistic development. He joined a sketching club started by Girtin, and went on drawing expeditions with him to Wales and Surrey.

In 1800 Cotman exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time, showing five scenes of Surrey and one of Harlech Castle. He is thought to have spent the summers of 1800 and 1801 touring Wales, as he showed Welsh scenes at the Royal Academy in 1801 and 1802.[5] In 1800 he was awarded an honorary palette by the Society of Arts. He continued to exhibit at the Academy until 1806, and went on extended drawing trips through England and Wales. In the three summers of 1803–5 he stayed with the Cholmeley family at Brandsby Hall in Yorkshire. On the last of these three visits, he made a series of watercolours of the River Greta.[6]

Return to NorwichEdit

While based in London, Cotman had spent some time in Norwich, and in September 1802 he advertised his services as teacher of drawing in the Norwich Mercury.[7] In 1806 he returned to live in Norwich. He joined the Norwich Society of Artists and exhibited 20 works, including six portraits, at the society's exhibition in 1807.[8] In 1808, the 67 works he exhibited included oil paintings.[4] He became President of the Society in 1811.

Portrait of Dawson Turner

His main living came from teaching art and one of his students, the local antiquary Dawson Turner, became a good friend, introducing him to many pupils and collaborating on one of his books.[citation needed] As part of his teaching Cotman operated his own version of a watercolour subscription library, so that his pupils could take home his drawings to copy. Many of his works bear numbers related to this scheme.[9]

In 1811, his first set of etchings was published; all but one of the subjects were architectural, mostly buildings in Yorkshire.[10] From 1812 to 1820 he published a set of 60 etchings of the ancient buildings of Norfolk.[11] In 1817, 1818 and 1820 he visited Normandy with Dawson Turner, making drawings of buildings. Two years later he published a set of 100 etchings based on sketches made during his Normandy tour.[12] After these visits the character of his paintings changed, the later ones being brighter in colour.[13]

From 1812 to 1823, Cotman lived on the coast at Great Yarmouth, where he studied shipping and mastered the form of waves. Some of his finest marine pieces date from this time.[14] He returned to Norwich in 1824, hoping to improve his financial position, and moved into a large house in St Martin's Plain, opposite the Bishop's Palace, where he built up a collection of prints, books, armour and many models of ships to aid his compositions.[15] He showed work from 1823 to 1825 at the Norwich Society of Artists' annual exhibitions.

In 1825, Cotman became an Associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours and was a frequent exhibitor there until 1839. However he was driven to despair by his constant financial struggles.

King's College, LondonEdit

In January 1834, Cotman was appointed Master of Landscape Drawing at King's College School in London, partly on the recommendation of J. M. W. Turner. In 1836, his son Miles Edmund Cotman was appointed to assist him. The poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of his pupils. In London, Cotman was friends with the artists James Stark, George Cattermole, Samuel Prout and Cornelius Varley. In 1836, he became an honorary member of the Institute of British Architects. In 1838, all of his etchings were published by Henry George Bohn, including "Liber Studiorum".

Cotman died in July 1842, and was buried in the cemetery at St. John's Wood Chapel. All his works and collection of prints and books were sold by auction at Christie's, realising just over £525 – a relatively paltry sum.

Family lifeEdit

Portrait of Mrs John Sell Cotman by John Sell Cotman (c.1808, Norfolk Museums Collections)

John Sell Cotman married Ann Miles, one of four daughters of a Felbrigg farmer. They were married at Felbrigg parish church near Cromer on 6 January 1809.[16][9] Cotman remained devoted to his wife throughout heir married life together.[17] They moved to London during the spring of 1809,[18] and their eldest child Miles Edmund Cotman was born on 5 February the following year.[19] After the family moved to Great Yarmouth in April 1812,[20] their daughter Ann was born in July 1812, followed by three more sons, John Joseph Cotman, (Francis) Walter, and Alfred Henry. who were born in 1814, 1816 and 1819 respectively.[21] A sixth daughter was born in 1822.[9]

Cotman painted The Toy Boat, a watercolour of himself and his daughter, in c.1815. He and his children sailed around the Yarmouth area on their boat 'Jessie' when they were older.[22]

His depression affected his family, as revealed in a letter dated 26 June 1829:

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

— John Sell Cotman, (Lawrence Binyon, John Sell Cotman)[23]

In 1834 his eldest son Miles Edmund remained in Norwich to work as an art teacher, when the rest of the Cotman family moved to London upon the appointment of John Sell Cotman as a Professor of Drawing at King's College.[24] A year after his move to London, Mile Edmund himself moved to London, becoming his father's assistant after his brother John Joseph moved back to Norwich.[25] His sons Miles Edmund and John Joseph Cotman later became painters of note. Miles Edmund succeeded his father as drawing master at King's College in 1843.[26]


Cotman worked in oils, watercolour, pencil and chalk, and produced many hundreds of etchings. His works are on public display in Norwich, where well over 2,000 works are held, as well as at the Leeds Art Gallery, the Tate Gallery, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and other regional centres. In the United States, there are works by Cotman at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, and in other galleries around the country.

Cotman’s work was not thought to be important during his lifetime, and he made little from sales of his paintings and drawings.[26] His architectural etchings have long been considered as a valuable records of his passion for archaeology.[26]

Published worksEdit




  1. ^ "John Sell Cotman in "Archdeacons transcripts for Norwich parishes, 1600-1812". FamilySearch. Retrieved 25 November 2019. (registration required)
  2. ^ "Baptisms, Marriages and Burials (Norwich parishes 1771-1788) in "Archdeacons transcripts for Norwich parishes, 1600-1812"". FamilySearch. Retrieved 25 November 2019. (registration required)
  3. ^ Cundall 1920, pp. 1, 17.
  4. ^ a b Binyon 1897, p. 49.
  5. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 50.
  6. ^ Lyles & Hamlyn 1997, p. 206.
  7. ^ Binyon 1897, pp. 52-52.
  8. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 56.
  9. ^ a b c Binyon 1897, p. 60.
  10. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 64.
  11. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 67.
  12. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 71.
  13. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 72.
  14. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 75.
  15. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 76.
  16. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 127.
  17. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 128.
  18. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 129.
  19. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 132.
  20. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 159.
  21. ^ Kitson 1937, p. 164.
  22. ^ Kitson 1937, pp. 75-6.
  23. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 80.
  24. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 85.
  25. ^ Binyon 1897, p. 92.
  26. ^ a b c Chisholm 1911.
  27. ^ a b Ray 1976, p. 49.


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit



  • Biography by Bruce MacEvoy from