The origins of the collection can be traced back to an art collector called Charles Rogers (1711-1784) who was Head of the Certificate Office of the Customs House in London, although a proportion of it can be traced back further to its true beginnings under the Townson family.
Robert Townson (1640-1707) whose father was a successful London merchant, secured a prestigious post for him as Chief Clerk at the Customs House, introducing him to importers of art. Robert’s son William (1682-1740) inherited his father’s collection along with his position at the Customs House. Charles Rogers later joined Townson at the Customs House and their shared passion for art and literature led to William bequeathing the collection to Charles upon his death. Many of Rogers’ friends were artists and collectors themselves and this led to the further enhancement of the collection. When Charles Rogers died unmarried in 1784, the collection passed to William Cotton who had married Rogers’ sister Charlotte. The collection however soon passed to William Cotton’s son (William Cotton II) following his father’s death in 1791.
William Cotton II lived in Clapham and had obtained the post of Chief Clerk at the Customs House after Charles Rogers’ retirement. He married Catherine Savery, daughter of the Rev. William Savery of South Devon in 1792. The collection he had inherited was now vast and included thousands of drawings, prints, books and other works of art. William was unable to accommodate the entire collection at his home, so he decided to sell a substantial proportion, reducing the collection by around two-thirds. When William died in 1816 the collection was left to his son William Cotton III.
a letter written by William Cotton to his friend William Barradaille on 17th August 1849
William Cotton was born in London in 1794, the eldest of six siblings to William Cotton and Catherine Savery. As a young man William read Classics and Theology at Oxford, graduating in 1814 (M.A., 1818). In the summer of 1816, he embarked upon his ‘Grand Tour’ but had to return to England upon news of his father’s ill health.
At the age of 22, William inherited a substantial collection of paintings, prints and other works of art following the death of his father in October 1816, a collection which became known as the Cottonian Collection and which now resides at Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery, now renamed The Box.
As a result of his substantial inheritance, William was able to live a life of leisure and re-embarked upon his Grand Tour taking in Florence, Rome and Naples, acquiring a passion for art.
He married Mary Collins in 1823 and lived at The Priory in Leatherhead. However, after visiting his younger sister at Churstow, near Kingsbridge, he immediately fell in love with rural Devon. In 1839 he purchased the lease of Highland House and moved to Ivybridge, describing it as” a village much famed for its beauty of situation and surrounding scenery on the River Erme”.
William’s new home in Ivybridge, Highland House, was built in 1792 and occupied a 14-acre site. He personally described it as “…delightfully situated as its name implies, on land above the level of the countryside … sheltered by a fringe of trees, gently sloping grounds and a well-planned garden boasting fine and well-established shrubberies.” He immediately embarked upon an extensive rebuilding programme, largely driven by the necessity to accommodate the collection which he had brought with him. The cost of these alterations amounted to the not insignificant sum of £500, (the entire house and extensive grounds had been sold for £600 in 1823). Apart from the house, William Cotton was also instrumental in planting many of the specimen trees which still appear today in the grounds of Highlands, as well as other large shrubs. “Nothing can exceed the brilliancy of the Azaleas and Rhododendrons” he once wrote when describing his garden. Although William and Mary never had children, they were very much family orientated and Highland House became a regular visiting destination for the wider family offering a quiet environment for relaxation and recuperation from illness.
The House, which is near the village, stands in a lawn of about eight acres, and commands an extensive view of the picturesque vale of Ermington and the river Erme,
Consists of drawing room and dining room, 18ft by 16 each; four best bed rooms with drawing room and two servants’ rooms; store room; two kitchens, with a constant supply of spring water in each; dairy, pantry, laundry, cellar and every requisite domestic office. Also a good four-stall stable, coach house, cow houses, piggery, poultry houses and court, rabbit house.
The above Premises … form a most desirable Residence for a Sportsman … the river Erme affords excellent fishing.
William Cotton was an empathetic member of the community, heavily involved with the cholera epidemic which started in Plymouth and Devonport and eventually reached Ivybridge in 1849. He personally chaired a local meeting to form a Local Board of Health to tackle the problem. Measures included the cleaning of drains, gutters and ponds and protecting the impoverished within the community. Also, in the absence of a resident clergyman he volunteered himself to read prayers to the sick and dying. William was a strong supporter of the church and working with Lady Rogers and her son Sir Frederick, he helped fund the building of a parsonage in Ivybridge. This was located on a piece of land between the old Bicton Wood (Victoria Park) and the meadows called Beacons. He also provided coloured glazing for the north window of the church.
During his time in Ivybridge, William Cotton continued to add to his collection. He developed a keen interest in the specialist portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and acquired several of his works. Reynolds had been a friend of Charles Rogers and the art collection included a portrait of him by Sir Joshua. It was known that William gave lectures on Reynolds and later published two major books on the life and work of this artist, ‘Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ in 1856 and ‘A catalogue of the Portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ in 1857. William Cotton had access to the pocketbooks in which Reynolds recorded the names of his subjects and the times of sitting which helped to list the works in chronological order.
By 1849, living at Highland House was placing a financial strain upon William, “I am living here to the full extent of my income, or rather beyond it” and he began looking for somewhere more economical. However, there was the small matter of his art collection to consider. He approached the Borough Town of Plympton with a plan to donate his collection to an Institute, dedicated to the memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds (who was born in Plympton St Maurice). However, to enable this to happen, a suitable building would be required to house the collection and sufficient funds secured to adequately maintain it. Sadly, the Borough was unable to raise the money to meet the special needs and the project was abandoned.
Fortunately for Cotton the Plymouth Proprietary Library agreed to the terms just a year later and the collection opened in June 1853 within the Library’s purpose-built room (described as a handsome apartment and costing £1500) located in Cornwall Street.
Upon the death of his wife Mary in 1861, William left Highland House moving to Plymouth and living at No.8 West Hoe Terrace until his death in 1863. Both William and Mary are buried in Ivybridge cemetery. The elaborate tombstone can be found under a large yew tree and nearby, the grave of Lila Yonge, the youngest child of Mary’s sister Eliza Yonge who died from measles. This girl had lived with William and Mary in Ivybridge after becoming orphaned in 1858.
Following William’s death, the portion of the collection which he had retained, was added to the main collection, making it whole once more. One of the conditions of the original gift required amongst others, that the collection should be kept together. The ‘Cottonian Collection’ in 1916 came into the care of Plymouth Corporation and was housed in the Museum and Art Gallery where it has remained ever since.
William Cotton’s obituary described him as a quiet man and ‘of somewhat nervously shy manners’ but he nevertheless made a lasting contribution to the village of Ivybridge and to Plymouth.
Aged 22, he inherited an art collection belonging to relatives