Greta Bridge (Yorkshire) by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), c. 1805. Watercolour on paper. Height: 227 mm. x Width: 329 mmm. Collection: The British Museum, registration no. 1902,0514.17. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Image downloaded, caption material and comments added, and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Laurence Binyon's comment on this work is deeply appreciative: "No reproduction can convey the extraordinary charm of colour which Greta Bridge possesses. 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" (58). How has Cotman achieved this wonderful effect? There are long and useful "Curator's Comments" on the watercolour in the British Museum site (see below). In brief, Cotman stayed with friends in Yorkshire for several summers in the very early nineteenth century, and the work he did there represented a new departure for him that is particularly admired today. Miklos Rajnai puts it well: "Cotman severely repressed (or forgot about) his interest in the picturesque and in architecture," concentrating instead

on "nature" as she displayed herself in the plants and trees hugging the precipitous banks of the Greta. The green vegetation merging in screens of curious surface patterns and often invading the entire sheet he was working on did not induce Cotman to analytical studies: rather it made him concentrate on its inherent structure, which found visual expression in the interlocking patches of light and dark areas and contrasting hues.

So here we have something unexpected at this time in the history of art: "A previously undetectable inclination to abstraction," which, as Rajnai points out, "manifested itself in a way seldom seen in painting before: he achieved this without forcing nature into the straitjacket of an idiosyncratic or preconceived style. At the same time the neutral washes disappeared and the usually gentle hues were directly applied to the paper, producing a feeling of closeness with nature and a spring-like freshness" (16).


Binyon, Laurence. John Crome and John Sell Cotman. London: Seeley & Co./New York: Macmillan, 1897. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 3 March 2022.

"Drawing." British Museum. Web. 6 March 2022.

Rajnai, Miklos. "Introduction." John Sell Cotman, 1782-1842. London: Herbert Press, 1982. Ed. Rajnai. 1-17.

Created 5 March 2022