Cotman (1782-1842) came to London from his native Norwich in 1798 and soon entered the circle of artists centred around Dr Thomas Monro, a physician who welcomed watercolourists into his home, providing a meeting place, and offering financial support and the opportunity to study and copy his impressive collection. J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Girtin were among his many protégés. Cotman travelled widely around Britain, producing many pencil drawings and colour sketches that he later worked up into carefully patternedwatercolours.
Cotman stayed at Rokeby Hall, Yorkshire, and at a nearby inn during the summer of 1805. He sketched the bridge which spans the river Greta at the south gate of Rokeby Park (the drawing is also in the British Museum's collection) and worked his sketch up into this finished watercolour, which has become one of his most famous images. The watercolour is built up in distinct patches of restrained colour, held in a precise pattern of tone and line, the hallmarks of Cotman's unique style. Here, the austere geometry of man-made elements is held together by the crisp shadows on the building and bridge. Even the sky is brought into line by a grey horizontal wash, echoing the river surface.
Later in his career, Cotman began to mix rice-paste into his watercolour to allow him to work in a heavier, more gestural style, and he began to use brighter colours in his palette.