Portrait of the Artist’s Father by John Sell Cotman, £1800 at Dawsons.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

While it is not unusual for works to come to auction directly from the descendants of artists, a recent sale at Dawsons (25% buyer’s premium) offered a family collection the like of which rarely appears.

The works comprised pictures by each generation of the Cotman family of artists over the last 200 years, effectively covering two centuries of British painting in a single consignment.

Having always remained in the family, the pictures that appeared at the Maidenhead on May 25 came to auction following the death of Susan Wiltshire (née Cotman), an artist herself who died last year.

In all, the 205 lots raised a total of approximately £61,000 with 80% of the works selling on the day.

Main name

Norwich-born landscape painter John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) was the family’s most famous member and remains, both curatorially and commercially, the most prominent artist in the family.

The ‘father’ figure of the dynasty – he was the first family member to become an artist, showing a great natural talent from an early age – his works provided 31 lots at Dawsons, mostly groups of etchings or small drawings.

Although none of his supremely executed watercolour landscapes – which can make strong five-figure prices (and on one occasion six-figure) – were on offer here, the highest price came for a rare portrait by Cotman of his father Edmund (1759-1844).

A Norwich hairdresser who became a wealthy silk and lace merchant, Edmund wanted John to join the family business instead of becoming an artist.

However, intent on a career in art, John moved to London aged 16 and initially made a living by receiving commissions from print-sellers.

Plenty of landscapes by the artist are sold at auction every year but only a handful of portraits have ever emerged.

The highest price was £4000 at Christie’s in 2012 for a portrait of a boy, believed to be his younger brother Henry.

The portrait here was estimated at £500-800 and it sold at £1800.

The auction house said it could not disclose any buyer information but the collection in general attracted private and trade buyers and it reported some lots selling overseas.

Second son


A River Scene by John Joseph Cotman, £4000 at Dawsons.

A work by John’s second son, John Joseph Cotman (1814-78) sparked a greater competition and led the works from the collection.

The artist, who was also a teacher, remains admired for his loosely handled watercolours of which this was a good example. Measuring 12½ x 18½in (32 x 47cm), it had featured at the Art of the Seven Cotmans exhibition at Norwich Castle Art Gallery’ back in 1942.

Estimated at £150-250, it was bid up to £4000 and sold to an online buyer.

The price was the second highest at auction for a work by John Joseph.


An 1830 watercolour by Miles Edmund Cotman, £2000 at Dawsons.

A picture by the latter’s elder brother Miles Edmund Cotman (1810-58) also drew demand against a £300-500 pitch.

The 16¾ x 22½in (43cm x 57cm) watercolour from 1830 depicted two boats, one of which was the Dreadnought, an old hospital ship on the Thames. It sold at £2000.


A portrait of Henry William Cotman as a boy by his father Frederick George Cotman, £420 at Dawsons.

Another work that drew interest was a portrait by Frederick George Cotman (1850-1920), the nephew of John Sell Cotman.

The 14½ x 9¼in (37 x 24cm) oil on canvas depicted his son Henry William Cotman (1876-1938) as a boy. It was another of the works featured at the Art of the Seven Cotmans exhibition. Estimated at £200-300, it took £420.