The present watercolour, widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of Cotman’s later period, dates from the early 1830s, a time at which Cotman’s work was once again progressive and exciting. His experimental and distinctive mixture of watercolour and flour paste was beginning to replace the layers of sheer washes characteristic of his early work, giving a density and luminosity rarely achieved in watercolour.
The 1830s saw the evolution of a series of dramatic, romantic landscapes, inspired in part by the novels of Sir Walter Scott. The watercolour Rob Roy, (Cartwright Hall, Bradford), dates from circa 1830. The striking composition, A Shepherd on a hill (Walker Art Gallery, fig. 1) also dates from the early 1830s. In that drawing a shepherd and his dog look out across an open hillside at the distant flock. The movement of the sky suggests an incoming storm, as does the rising flock of birds. The theme of an isolated figure pitched against the forces of nature is developed further in the present watercolour.
The title of the present watercolour alone alludes to its romantic, popular theme. In the Grampians, probably executed a couple of years after Rob Roy, depicts an intensely swirling sky surrounding the distant mountains. The traditional dress of the cowherd identifies him as a Scot, while his relatively diminutive scale gives a sense of the imposing nature of the mountains, and of the sublime and transcendental beauty of the landscape. Cotman continues to explore the notion of a man, alone on the moors in Moorland Shepherd (Norwich Castle Museum, fig. 2). Cotman develops this theme throughout the 1830s, with even more intense use of his distinctive flour and paste medium. The Shepherd (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) is dated to circa 1835-1839 (fig. 3).
This was a theme that fascinated Cotman throughout his life, and one which the progression of his technique allowed him to investigate further. The present drawing creates a sense of grandeur in its openness and the dominance of the sky, whereas in his earlier works, such as the 1805 Greta Woods (fig. 4), the scale and power of nature is implied by the close viewpoint and its dominance of the picture plane, with the man-made bridge almost overtaken by foliage.
There is no record of Cotman visiting Scotland, although he made several visits to his friends and patrons in Yorkshire, the Cholmeley family, and could have travelled on from there. However, the exact location of this drawing is evidently secondary to its atmosphere. Cotman often used his own or others earlier sketches as the basis of these atmospheric later watercolours; a group of three 1830s watercolours of Cader Idris, Wales, are based on the sketches Cotman executed when he visited the region in 1800 and 1802. These also employ his idiosyncratic flour paste technique to achieve the desired intensity of mood which captures both the prevailing weather and the essence of the landscape. Cotman’s ability to capture that most fleeting of effects, atmosphere, and draw-out its relationship to the human state is rivalled only by his great contemporary, J.M.W. Turner, R.A. whose interest in the sublime has been much discussed.
We are grateful to Timothy Wilcox for his help in cataloguing this lot.