Prepare to be Inspired!

Studio 3 JS Cotman Project- trip to Knaresborough

The project so far has introduced the group to the Leeds Art Gallery collection of John Sell Cotman’s work (see Tea with the Curator). To help everyone look more closely at the work and find a route for a response, I also set some exercises which examine his watercolour and compositional techniques.

Now it was time to take inspiration from the landscape itself. We decided on Knaresborough, with its castle, riverside and bridges providing several points of interest.

Jill printed good quality copies of JS Cotman’s painting of Knaresborough, and I caught an early train, with the aim of locating the same viewpoint. It was a beautiful spring day, and a scenic train ride with at one point a kestrel flying alongside! I’d planned my recce route using google earth, so it didn’t take long for me to walk from the station to one possible bridge, then along the riverside to the farthest bridge, photographing views as I went. There were options for sitting to sketch at both bridges, but the main thing I discovered was a lot has changed in 200 years, including access to the riverside! I found a view of what appears to be the correct bridge, but the castle is located on the wrong side. I found a view of another bridge, where the river is narrower, and the castle is where the church stands. Was Cotman’s painting a composite of several sketches? I also found the cows, but in a field by the river without either bridge in sight!    

The group arrived and we sat beside the cafe to plan the afternoon over some lunch. One of the bridges was visible through the arches of the viaduct.

The lovely weather had brought people out and the riverside was getting busy. As we headed toward the bridge, we noticed a whole row of benches, just in front of the viaduct, that would also give a great view of the bridge in one direction, and the castle in the other. Perfect for us to spread out and sketch. ‘I’ set up his camera photographing all sorts including the ducks, and pigeons in flight. As people started to row past in the boats, ‘E’ pointed out that Cotman often used people to provide a sense of scale in his work. There were so many views to choose from it was really useful to have the viewing frames to help find a strong composition.


Jill had brought some aquabrushes which are perfect for outdoor sketching, and ‘P’ enjoyed trying these out. The viaduct is such a prominent feature of Knaresborough’s riverside that it features in several of our sketches. We’ve been focusing on JS Cotman’s work in Yorkshire, between 1803 and 1810. The viaduct, however wasn’t built until 1851. “Well then, ours are definitely a modern response”! 

written by Rozi


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