John Sell Cotman (Norwich 1782 - London 1842)

The Mouth of the Yare

indistinctly signed (lower right)
oil on canvas
55.9 x 81.3 cm (22 x 32 in)


Provenance: with Thomas Woolner, A.R.A.;
witth Thomas Agnew & Sons (according to a label on the reverse).

London, Royal Academy, Exhibition of the Works of the Old Masters, together with Works of Deceased Masters of the British School, 1872, no.261.

In this classic example of John Sell Cotman’s work, we see a variety of boats milling around the mouth of the River Yare, as it empties into the North Sea. In an arrestingly harmonious composition, the viewer’s eye moves beyond a bobbing barrel to a group of brightly dressed figures who are rowing out to where a larger vessel lies waiting. A second similar boat lies just beyond, and in the distance, veiled in a light mist, a variety of other ships and fishing boats can be seen gently sailing in the breeze. In the foreground Cotman has depicted a slither of riverbank, and the reeds and grasses rustle and bend in the wind. The North Sea appears perfectly still as it stretches away into the horizon where it meets the vast expanse of sky. Cotman has devoted the majority of the canvas to its depiction, across which billowing clouds drift, tinged pink in the dawn light. The overall sense of flatness, created by the large spreads of sea and sky, is balanced by the sharp verticals of the marker post and masts, which recur throughout the work, demonstrating Cotman’s compositional skill.

The River Yare is situated in Norfolk, flowing eastwards throughout the county before discharging into the North Sea at Gorleston, Great Yarmouth. Cotman was born, lived and worked in the area all his life, and painted the Yare and the coast off Great Yarmouth many times. The Fitzwilliam Museum’s Wherries at Anchor on Breydon Water, shows a tidal estuary which is located a short distance inland from Great Yarmouth. It is comparable to The Mouth of the Yare in that depicts small anchored vessels in tranquil Norfolk water. Apart from depicting humble labourers, Cotman’s other major concern in both works is an accurate depiction of still water and cloudy sky, which demonstrates his status as ‘the foremost landscape stylist of the Norwich School’.¹

Cotman was born in Norwich in 1782, and moved to London at the age of sixteen, as an assistant to the influential publisher Rudolph Ackermann (1764-1834). He soon befriended Dr. Thomas Munro, who was so important to the development of English landscape painting, and through him came into contact with the work of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) and John Robert Cozens (1752-1798). Having established himself as a successful painter he returned to Norfolk in 1806, settling in Great Yarmouth six years later. In 1811 Cotman became vice-president of the Norwich Society of Artists which had been founded by the other great artist of the Norwich School, John Crome (1768-1821).

In his earlier watercolour landscapes Cotman already displayed a strong sense of classical design. He used large flat washes to build up form in clearly defined planes and austerely decorative patterns. From c.1810 he devoted himself also to etching as a mode of expression for his love of architectural antiquities, which formed a bond with his patron Dawson Turner.

Between 1816 and 1818 he brought out two books on the architectural antiquities of Norfolk, followed by the Sepulchral Brasses in Norfolk and Suffolk in 1819. He spent the summers of 1817, 1818, and 1820 making sketches in Normandy, from which he made plates for Dawson Turner’s Architectural Antiquities of Normandy (1822) and Tour in Normandy (1820). Today Cotman, along with Crome, is remembered as one of the leading lights of the Norwich School and The Mouth of the Yare is an excellent example of his important and influential work.

1 Goldberg, N. L., Landscapes of the Norwich School (exhib. Cat. The Cummer Gallery of Art, Jacksonville, Florida 1967), p.102.