The Norwich artist they called too colourful

The Eel Boat, by John Sell Cotman, c1820s, pencil and watercolour and body colour on paper. Picture

The Eel Boat, by John Sell Cotman, c1820s, pencil and watercolour and body colour on paper. Picture: Norfolk Museums Service - Credit: Picture: Norfolk Museums Service

An atmospheric picture of a Norfolk river was to have been one of the stars of a new exhibition at Norwich Castle. The show has been postponed but visitors can still enjoy The Eel Boat by John Sell Cotman

The Eel Boat, aka River Scene, aka Babbing for Eels, by John Sell Cotman, was to have featured in the exhibition Where Land and Water Meet: Norfolk’s Rivers, Streams, Brooks and Broads. The exhibition will open when Norwich Castle reopens - but in the meantime highlights, including Cotman’s thrice-named painting, can be seen online.

Here curator Giorgia Bottinelli explores the appeal of a picture and painter once considered too colourful.

Norfolk’s coast and extensive networks of waterways have always been a distinguishing feature of our region. Important for trade, transport and industry in the past, they are now a major tourist destination as well as a haven for wildlife. They are also the setting for sporting activities, some of which, such as ‘water frolics’, or regattas, have taken place at Wroxham, Thorpe and Great Yarmouth since the early 19th century. Generations of artists have captured many different aspects of Norfolk’s coast, Broads and rivers, often working en plein air, or ‘on the spot’, and continue to do so today.

In this drawing from the 1820s, Norwich School artist John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) shows a fisherman about to raise his nets. Norfolk’s waterways were once teeming with eels, and eel boats were a common sight. Nets were spread on the riverbed at night when the tide was ebbing, and the fishermen slept in their covered boats overnight. Cotman’s treatment turns what would have been heavy work into a picture of perfect tranquillity. A keen sailor, he was also highly skilled at depicting maritime and river subjects.

Cotman made this drawing with pencil, watercolour and bodycolour on buff wove paper. Bodycolour is white pigment which is added to watercolour paint to increase its opacity; here it gives the scene the appearance of a velvety chalk drawing. The focus is all on the boat and fisherman in the foreground, drawn with quick strokes and dabs of paint. Cotman utilised the brown paper as a colour in itself, adding a limited palette of sepia and the odd touches of green and russet alongside his trademark flash of red in the fisherman’s cap which is balanced in brightness by the white highlights. The river and background are mainly rendered in shades of the intense blue that Cotman had started using in the early 1820s.

Having moved from Norwich to Great Yarmouth in 1812, Cotman returned to his native city in 1823 and adopted a bright palette of yellows and blues which, unfortunately, never encountered public favour there. Although he did not let lack of public success stifle his creativity, the criticism he received left Cotman grief-stricken and he was unable to rise above it. As late as 1834, he wrote to his patron Dawson Turner in Great Yarmouth about seeing over 300 ‘most splendid drawings … from nature and copies of pictures and bits from the old Spanish masters’ by John Frederick Lewis in London. “Words cannot convey to you this splendour. My poor red, blues and yellows – for which I have in Norwich been so much abused and broken-hearted about – are faded fades, to what I saw there.”

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One of the most original watercolourists of the nineteenth century, John Sell Cotman never achieved fame as an artist in his lifetime, something he so desperately craved and which fleetingly appeared to be within his grasp early in his career. On the whole his work did not appeal to the 19th century taste for the romantic and the picturesque: it was often controlled and unsentimental, with a focus on abstracted shape and inherent structure. It was not until the early 20th century and the rise of modernism that his work finally achieved the recognition it rightfully deserved.

The Eel Boat by John Sell Cotman will feature in the exhibition Where Land and Water Meet: Norfolk’s Rivers, Streams, Brooks and Broads, at Norwich Castle when it reopens. In the meantime selected highlights are available at and

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