Letters to John Joseph Cotman

Volunteer Brian Richardson looks at a fascinating trove of letters from the archive of Sydney Kitson in Leeds Art Gallery.

The papers of Sydney Kitson (1871–1937) include 21 letters that give insight into the family of the artist John Sell Cotman (1782–1842), and into middle-class life in Norwich in his day. They were written in 1834–35 by Arthur Dixon, who worked in a chemist’s shop in the city, and were addressed to Cotman’s second son John Joseph (1814–1878).

a beige piece of paper with a pencil sketch of what looks like a castle on top of a hill.
Sketch of Norwich Castle by John Joseph Cotman, 1850s

Dixon, born around 1811, is one of John Joseph’s young friends; another is John Sell Cotman’s pupil Joseph Geldart, who portrayed John Joseph in 1835.

A black and white portrait of John Sell Cotman. He's sitting down and drawn from the waist up, and is wearing a 3 piece suit and bow tie. His hair is very curly and he's looking into the distance to the right.
Portrait of John Joseph Cotman by Joseph Geldart, 1835

As a pharmacist, Dixon treats John Sell Cotman’s invalid wife Ann (née Miles, 1783–1862) and his daughter, also called Ann (1812–1862). Cotman writes to Dixon to complain, tongue in cheek, about an ‘extravagant’ fee, but requests ‘the pleasure of your company to Tea on Sunday’.

The Cotmans in 1834

1834 is an especially difficult year for all the Cotman family. In January, John Sell Cotman moves to London to teach drawing at King’s College school. He takes with him the 19 year old John Joseph, who is to seek a livelihood in the city, but John Sell’s wife and their 4 other children remain in Norwich.

This disruption unsettles John Joseph who, like his father, is prone to depression. Dixon, ever anxious for his friend’s welfare, advises him to rise early and take exercise such as rowing. He suggests that, rather than undertaking over-ambitious works of art, John Joseph should draw portraits that will advertise his abilities to ‘the ladies’ – potential female pupils.

Leisure

Dixon and his friends enjoy drawing. They make music: ‘Your sister sung very nicely’, he tells John Joseph after one soirée. He quotes Shakespeare and other poets, and Rousseau in French. He studies the political and literary Quarterly Review. A younger Cotman brother, Alfred, comes to him for help with his Latin homework, ‘with eyes red with weeping’.

Dixon lives in Thorpe, a couple of miles outside Norwich, where John Joseph’s grandfather had a house. He is a keen gardener. He writes in May: ‘It was the first morning the Geraniums had blossomed so I directly determined to make up a basket of them for London with the last of the Arums.’ To judge from the date, he must have had a greenhouse.

Dixon is a great walker. Visiting a friend in a village 10 miles away, he strides out in conversation with the Cotmans’ dog Carlo. Once he ‘sails’ into town up the river, ‘the Wind blowing quite a gale with a bright sunny & almost cloudless sky so clear & cool, our broad bodies, with the help of the paddles stuck upright, bearing us along’ (see the extract below). To go further afield, he takes a gig. After travelling to Yarmouth in this way in November 1834, ‘I e’en stript on the beach and had a dip’.

A letter, written in very slanted itallicised writing. It starts with 'My Dear John'
The opening of one of Dixon’s letters to John Joseph Cotman

Gossip

Dixon passes on titbits of local scandal. A man punishes his wife by hanging her dog and dismissing her long-serving maid. In an incident that seems to anticipate Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, the dean of Norwich cathedral forbids ladies to walk in the cathedral close if they do not live there, and in response someone posts a mock notice that ‘All Ladies of the Town […] who shall be found walking in the Squairs, will be subjected to the Male treatment of […] the Dean of Norwich.’

The letters

Each letter was folded four times, closed with a wax seal or a red paper disk called a wafer, and addressed (no envelope needed). Postmarks can give the date of posting, but we are just before the age of the Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp (1840).

The front of an old fashioned enveloped, addressed to Mr J J Cotman. It has a Norwich postmark on it and is written in very slanted writing.
The address and postmark on one of Dixon’s letters to Cotman

Dixon’s touching correspondence was evidently kept carefully by John Joseph. It passed to James Reeve, to the artist Arthur Batchelor, and then on to Kitson. It now forms part of his archive at Leeds Art Gallery, which has been digitised and transcribed and is available here.

By Brian Richardson, Leeds Art Gallery volunteer.

Visit the Cotmania website to discover our collection of John Sell Cotman works.

Find out more about Leeds Art Gallery here.

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