John Sell Cotman was a painter in watercolour and oil, whose austere sense of design produced some of the finest English landscape paintings of the 19th century, comparable with the works of Constable and Turner.
He was born in Norwich but worked in London, partly with Dr Monro, and exhibited at the RA 1800-1806. He then returned to Norwich, where he first exhibited in 1807, becoming the leading member of the Norwich School along with Crome. While living in East Anglia he began to make etchings for The Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk (60 plates, 1811-1818), and, unlike Crome, print-making became a major part of his work.
He visited Normandy in 1817-18 and again in 1820, making drawings for Dawson Turner's Tour of Normandy (1820), and, more importantly, for Cotman's own large etchings for The Architectural Antiquities of Normandy (1822). In 1834 he returned to London. From 1831 he used watercolour mixed with rice-paste, producing an impasted and richly wrought surface which (to modern taste) is rather vulgar and totally different from his earlier work, which depends solely on simple flat washes of colour and clearly defined, almost geometric, planes.
There are many works by him in Norwich and in London (BM, NG, Tate, V&A, Courtauld Inst.) and others in Birmingham, Hull, Kendal, Leeds, Port Sunlight (Lady Lever Gall.) and Yale (CBA). His sons Miles Edmund (1810-58) and John Joseph (1814-78) were also painters, and are well represented in Norwich. John Thirdle of Norwich was also greatly influenced by him.