Blasting St. Vincent's Rock, Clifton

John Sell Cotman (British, 1782-1842)

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Sunlight knifing across the Avon river gorge divides the utterly placid blue waters of the Avon from the sun-struck heights of St. Vincent’s Rock on the outskirts of the Bristol suburb of Clifton. A chunk of limestone has been blasted from the heights in preparation for the construction of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Contrary to the early English tradition of tinting drawings with watercolor, Cotman thought of watercolor as a painter’s medium. Using a palette of broadly and boldly applied translucent blues and yellows, he aspired to what he called “the art of leaving out.”

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

A chunk of limestone blown skyward provides this watercolor's nominal subject. The blast introduces an unusual instability into an otherwise rock-solid John Sell Cotman landscape, where, characteristically, the terra is always firma. A shaft of sunlight knifes across the Avon Gorge, catches the sails of two vessels, and divides the hotly lit heights of St. Vincent's Rock from the cool, utterly placid surface of the Avon River. Cotman's vantage point, where the river exits the suburbs of Bristol and enters the gorge, had long been popular with England's landscape watercolorists. Unlike his predecessors, whose devotion to fine detail and delicate shades belonged to the 18th-century conception of English watercolors as ""tinted drawings,"" Cotman approached watercolor as a painter's medium. He applied a restricted palette-yellow and blue predominating-with simplicity and breadth, allowing the white paper to illuminate the translucent colors from underneath. While most of his contemporaries were trending toward increasingly elaborate and crowded watercolors, Cotman, after thirty years of practicing and teaching watercolor, excelled at what he called ""the art of leaving out.""

The subject and working sketch for Blasting St. Vincent's Rock came to Cotman from his former pupil, constant friend, and only consistent patron, the Bristol-based Reverend James Bulwer, who also purchased the finished watercolor. It was (and was likely meant to be) the last record of a view that was lost in 1831, when construction began on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which would span the Avon Gorge from the top of St. Vincent's Rock.

Leave out, but add nothing.
-John Sell Cotman

Object Information

John Sell Cotman (British, 1782-1842)
creation date
about 1830
watercolor with touches of gum Arabic over pencil on off-white paper
13-1/2 x 22-3/4 in.
accession number
credit line
Beeler Fund, Mr. and Mrs. William R. Spurlock Fund and James E. Roberts Fund
Public Domain
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

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