- Museum number
Greta bridge; view from the bank of a river with rocks in the foreground, a single-arched bridge in the mid-distance, a house at left, trees beyond. c. 1805
Watercolour over graphite sketch
- Production date
- 1805 (circa)
Height: 227 millimetres
Width: 329 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- The bridge spans the river Greta in North Yorkshire near the gates of Rokeby Park. Cotman arrived at Rokeby in the evening of 31 July 1805, in the company of his friend and patron Francis Cholmeley of Brandsby, near York. They were to stay as guests of the owner, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt (1771-1843), who on 22 July had written to Francis Cholmeley, 'Your letter and proposed visit give both Mrs Morritt and myself the greatest pleasure. We shall also be very happy to see Mr Cotman and to shew him a little of the banks of the Tees' (Cholmeley Archive, p. 24). Cotman stayed at the house for about three weeks, then, when his hosts left to pay visits elsewhere, he remained nearby, taking a room at the local inn, which is the large building to the left of the bridge. On 29 August Cotman wrote to Francis Cholmeley, who had gone north to join other members of his family at Capheaton, that on parting from Rokeby, 'Mrs Motts [Morritt] came up and shook me by the hand and wished me much good weather, good success and all good things' (ibid., p. 29). From this it is evident that Cotman intended to continue the work he had begun along the river Greta, which skirts the park. It was this landscape, rather than the more conventionally dramatic scenery of the Tees which evidently appealed to Cotman and became the focus of his work.
The bridge was designed by John Carr of York, and built in 1773 for Morritt's father, John Sawrey Morritt, a noted collector of classical antiquities, and replaced a Roman single-arched bridge. The strong, elegant lines of Cotman's watercolour seem to reflect an awareness of these classical associations, and he may have expected Morritt to show an interest in acquiring the watercolour. In the event, it was another, more distant view of the bridge that he ordered as a present for a Mrs Weddall; described by Cotman as 'a large drawing of my favourite view' (ibid., p. 29), this is believed to be the watercolour now in the Tate (3633), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1806.
A small drawing of the composition also in the Department (1902,0514.76) is likely to be the preliminary study from nature. This drawing is remarkable in that the process of refinement and simplification seems already far advanced, and the essential character of the finished watercolour is already envisaged by the artist, so that very few further adjustments were necessary. In his Ms catalogue, Reeve states that this work was exhibited at the Norwich Society in 1808. If this is the case, it may have been no.143, 'On the Greta River, Yorkshire; Sketch from Nature', or else nos 29 and 30, 'Sketch from nature'. If the work was indeed exhibited under one of these titles, it raises the possibility that what is admired as Cotman's extreme 'simplicity', is in fact an indicator of a watercolour in an intermediate or unfinished state.
In 1810 Cotman produced a second version of the composition, considerably larger (300 x 501mm). Neither was exhibited, but one at least appears to have been found a buyer, as works entitled 'Greta Bridge' were sold in Norwich by Spelman on 23 October 1835 (lot 124, 'Greta Bridge, Yorkshire'), and in a sale at Christie's 11 May 1836 (lot 29, 'Greta bridge', 8/-). It seems unlikely that these two sales refer to the same work; the first may apply to the Norwich version; James Reeve believed the second referred to his watercolour. In his copy of the sale catalogue now in the Department, he has written in the margin 'Probably the drawing in my collection / bought in'. In his introduction to the 1888 Norwich exhibition, Reeve states that Cotman was the seller, information that conflicts with Oppé's view (see below). Rajnai states that the 1836 lot, bid up to only 8 shillings, was then withdrawn (Rajnai & Allthorpe, p. 84, n.1). Oppé refers to the sale of a 'Greta Bridge' in 1836, owned by Cotman's friend and pupil James Bulwer. 'In 1836 a drawing called 'Greta Bridge' was sold by Cotman's friend Bulwer, with others by Cotman, and fetched only 8s. Assuming it to be the now famous drawing, the price is not more remarkable than the fact that Cotman himself who brought back several of his drawings at this sale did not think it worth either securing at this price or raising to a higher' (Burlington Magazine, July 1942, pp. 168-9). Oppé's account is substantially confirmed by Christie's archives; Bulwer is recorded as the seller, and Cotman was the buyer of another watercolour, of Merton Hall, for 12/- (Lot 50). The fact that he was present at the sale is indicated by the rather curious presence of his signature against this lot in the auctioneer's leger; the names of all the other buyers were filled in, as one would expect, by the auctioneer.
Reeve is recorded as owning the Norwich version of Greta Bridge in 1903, that is, after he had sold the first version to the British Museum. He does not appear to have had both versions in his possession at the same time, as the Norwich watercolour does not appear in his manuscript catalogue, which came to the British Museum along with the bulk of his collection in 1902.
Reproduced and discussed in David Hill, 'Cotman in the North', 2005, pl.124, p. 120
Reproduced in L. Binyon, 'John Crome and John Sell Cotman', 'Portfolio monograpph 32', April 1897, pl. 61.
A. Hemingway, 'The Constituents of Romantic Genius: John Sell Cotman's Greta Drawings' in M. Rosenthal [et al] eds, Prospects for the Nation; Recent Essays in British Landscape Art 1750-1880, Yale UP 1997, pp.195-197, fig. 71.
Reproduced in K. Sloan (ed.), Places of the Mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850-1950, p. 71, fig. 57.
J. Sweetman, The Artist and the Bridge, Ashgate 1999, p.137
Cholmeley Archive is in North Yorksire County Record Office; the letters concerning Cotman were published by A M Holcolmb and M Y Ashcroft, as a county council publication, in 1980
For complete bibliographic references for curatorial comments on John Sell Cotman drawings in the British Museum collection see 1902,0514.7.
This watercolour was issued as a coloured collotype facsimile by the British Museum in 'British Museum Facsimiles of Drawings and Water-colours, Nos. 1 - 14', where it was number 13 and described there as 'John Sell Cotman. Greta Bridge. Water-colour, about 1805.'; (Shelfmark 245*.b.11).
See also E. House et al., 'Rokeby, Poetry and Pleasure: Walter Scott and Turner in Teesdale', exh. cat. Bowes Museum, 2013, p.54.
The following entry appeared on the Explore section of the BM website until September 2015:
John Sell Cotman, Greta Bridge, a watercolour over pencil
England, around AD 1807
Cotman (1782-1842) came to London from his native Norwich in 1798 and soon entered the circle of artists centred around Dr Thomas Monro, a physician who welcomed watercolourists into his home, providing a meeting place, and offering financial support and the opportunity to study and copy his impressive collection. J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Girtin were among his many protégés. Cotman travelled widely around Britain, producing many pencil drawings and colour sketches that he later worked up into carefully patterned watercolours.
Cotman stayed at Rokeby Hall, Yorkshire, and at a nearby inn during the summer of 1805. He sketched the bridge which spans the river Greta at the south gate of Rokeby Park (the drawing is also in the British Museum's collection) and worked his sketch up into this finished watercolour, which has become one of his most famous images. The watercolour is built up in distinct patches of restrained colour, held in a precise pattern of tone and line, the hallmarks of Cotman's unique style. Here, the austere geometry of man-made elements is held together by the crisp shadows on the building and bridge. Even the sky is brought into line by a grey horizontal wash, echoing the river surface.
Later in his career, Cotman began to mix rice-paste into his watercolour to allow him to work in a heavier, more gestural style, and he began to use brighter colours in his palette.
The following label was written by Kim Sloan for Places of the Mind, 2017:
'Like Francis Towne, Cotman was an artist whose reputation after his death had been submerged by admiration for the works of Constable and Turner. But his spare line and tone technique and almost abstract areas of flat wash appealed to critics and writers like Laurence Binyon who had catalogued all the British drawings in the British Museum in the early 1900s. He saw in Cotman’s watercolours of the Greta River something of the simple pictorial qualities of the Chinese and Japanese drawings he also curated.'
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1888 Jul, Norwich Art Circle, 9th Exhibition, Cotman, no.51
1888 Nov, Burlington Fine Arts Club, no.7
1892 London, Royal Academy, 'Winter Exhibition of Old Masters' no.107
1934 BM, Exhibition of English Art, no.372
1958 Apr, BM, Eight centuries of landscape ... water-colours, case 60
1965 BM, 'Masterpieces of the Print Room', (no cat.)
1968 London, Royal Academy, Bicentenary Exhibition 1768-1968, no.539
1972 Oct, BM, The Art of Drawing, no.324
1982 Aug-Oct, London, V&A, 'Cotman', no. 61
1982 Nov-Dec, Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, 'Cotman', no. 61
1982-1983 Dec-Jan, Bristol Art Gallery, 'Cotman', no. 61
1985 BM, 'British Landscape Watercolours 1600-1860', no.121
1993 Jan-Apr, London, Royal Academy, 'British Watercolours', no.48
2002 Feb-May, BM, 'John Sell Cotman; The Poetry of Nature', no cat
2005 Mar-Apr, Norwich, Castle MAG, Cotman/Reeve Collection, no.34
2005 May-Jul, Durham, Bowes Museum, Cotman/Durham and Yorkshire
2017 23 Feb-27 Aug, London, BM, G90, Places of the Mind: British Landscape watercolours 1850-1950
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number