Early Inspiration

Cotman’s 'The Baggage Wagon'

This text, found the in the RE archive, was written by Richard, perhaps for an article or a talk.

Paintings that have influenced a young painter are not always a masterpiece.

Those of us who lived outside London in the nineteen twenties had little opportunity of seeing original paintings, and the present day student would be astonished at the poor quality and limited range of the reproductions which were our fare. Hardly any French painting was known to us. The Italians were represented by a very few masters. The very first book on art ever given was on watercolour painting and oddly enough Cotman’s The Baggage Wagon was included in the black and white reproductions. Although Cotman resorted to all sorts of tricks to obtain the modeling of trees in watercolour I felt that the general richness  of this work could only be executed in oil. The subject appealed to me.

© Norfolk Museums Service

'The Baggage Wagon' by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)

My family had just moved from town to country where roads suddenly dipped into valleys, and what lay around the next corner always kept one guessing. And I was susceptible to the romantic elements in the composition.

Let us look at the painting. To begin with the splendid, almost symmetrical shape of the trees filling the upper half of the panel is monumental. This shape is brought down into the lower half by a V shape made by the tree trunks, being securely held by the left hand parapet. The tree behind it has the startled look of a fork-lightning flash, the one on the right is like a long-legged spider slowly testing its web. It seems to have just missed its quarry the wagon grinding its way over the bridge, which appears to be only half a bridge. The right-hand parapet being closer though parallel to the left-hand one gives a strange swinging movement to the wagon and rider, suggesting a steep and precarious slope down to the lake on the right.

The intervals from the sail on the lake to the parapets (and how cunningly Cotman buttresses the right-hand one with a cloak and broad shadow) up to the upright slab on the extreme left are finely spaced. The trees beyond the wagon may appear to be in another style, and we feel Cotman hasn’t really resolved the transition from the flat somewhat unfinished-looking foliage on the left into the centre. But just a minute! How mysterious is the passage of light in the shadow, continuing the forward movement of the left-hand parapet, the centre of the spider’s web. Finally, yes, it is rather like a still in a film and one almost expects the words The End to form before our eyes.

During the Summer I set to work in our garden painting (on what was then considered quite a large canvas) an old oak tree with a path leading under it to the right – I even tried putting in a parapet! But apart from this piece of faking I kept translating what was before my eyes – as the summer turned to autumn so did my painting, until it was left unresolved.

I might add that even so the romantic side came through, as my father (who knew nothing of the original inspiration) remarked that a backview of a monk would be in keeping! Fortunately I did not indulge in this bit of theatricality. But my first teacher looked at the work in silence for a long time and finally gave it as his opinion that painting was my life from now on, and this was accepted.

© Richard Eurich Paintings

Tree with Fence (1921)
by Richard Eurich RA

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In Richard's wife Mavis's handwriting at the end of the essay: “Even so, its romantic quality was apparent and the painting still survives with its sincere tribute to a picture that had made a deep impression on me. And from that time all the family discussion as to what career I should adopt faded away and it was understood that painting should be my life from then on for better or for worse.”