Working with the John Sell Cotman Collection: Shelter from the Storm

Resident artist Hondartza Fraga begins her ‘Cotmania’ blog series by exploring the collection and it’s context, ahead of Leeds Art Gallery’s reopening in Autumn.

Last week I started my artist-in-residence project at Leeds Art Gallery. Over the course of the next few months, I will immerse myself in the work of John Sell Cotman – in particular, the archives created by his most ardent collector, Sydney Decimus Kitson. The team are re-cataloguing the collection of Cotman’s works and digitising the extensive material left by Kitson.

My role as a contemporary artist is to create new work in response to Cotman’s works and the Kitson collection. Even though I have created work in response to collections before, this is the first time I will be doing so to a single artist’s work, and it feels both exciting and challenging. Kitson’s approach to collecting Cotman verges on the obsessive, especially when confronted with all the material at once!

Alongside the boxes and boxes of Cotman’s sketches, Kitson kept notes on all his research: what looks like every newspaper clip mentioning Cotman, gallery catalogues, auctions papers, and lists of all the works he visited in numerous exhibitions across the country. All this was compiled into 12 beautifully bounded notebooks by Kitson himself, which he titled ‘Cotmania’. The notebooks are being scanned and very patiently transcribed by a team of 10 volunteers.

A sketched pencil drawing of a fishing boat tipping over amidst strong waves. The
John Sell Cotman (1782 – 1842) ‘A fishing smack struggling in heavy seas. Possibly a study after a picture’ c. 1824 – Graphite on laid paper

Over the next few weeks I will be spending time with all of these materials, as well as talking to the volunteers and main curators who are preparing an exhibition of Cotman’s works to open in the autumn when the gallery reopens to the public.

Thinking about archives in general, I have started collecting some texts on artists working and responding to archives, although I want my response to focus on Cotman and Kitson in particular.

There are different contexts throughout time for interpreting Cotman’s work: firstly when it was created between the 18th and 19th centuries, secondly during Kitson’s time nearly a century later, and finally the present day, almost another century after that. Our readings of the work, the artist and the collector throughout each time period must consider the many layers of meaning behind Cotman’s art, and yet offer something fresh and unexpected.

A pencil sketch. A boat with a man standing up in the foreground - the man is looking between the other boats at the cliff in the distance.
John Sell Cotman (1782 – 1842) ‘Boats in Harbour, Dover Castle on cliff behind’ c. 1799 – Graphite on laid paper

I am very honoured to be part of this project, which I know means a lot to those involved and has been in the making for many years. I hope my contribution will create an interesting dialogue between the material and the curators’ rethinking of it.

By Hondartza Fraga, Resident Artist at Leeds Art Gallery

To visit Hondartza’s website and view some of her works, click here

You can read through our previous post on the life of John Sell Cotman here.

Leeds Art Gallery is set to re-open in Autumn of 2017. Keep up with the renovation here.

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