The Cottonian Collection; A Brief History

Time is quickly running away with itself, and it is now time for the Art Bite scripts to be taking shape. An Art Bite is a twenty minute talk given by the Young Explainers to a small collection of the public within the gallery space.

One of the Art Bites this year will be focused on the history of the Cottonian Collection, from its humble beginnings right up to the modern day. Without wealthy benefactors, such as William Cotton, giving to institutions such as the Plymouth Proprietary Library, this country would not have such a thriving collection of artistic history. The Cottonian Collection itself dates back to the 1600’s, when Robert Townson collected a great deal of books, most of which were sermons. He had also begun to collect a number of paintings and drawings; this was the foundation of the collecting culture that developed in the 17th century.

From here the collection passed through to Charles Rodgers, whom Townson worked with at the Customs House, London. Rodgers made many of his own additions to the collection, but he had no male heirs, so the collection then passed to William Cotton; Rodger’s brother-in-law. After Cotton’s death the collection passed down through two more William Cottons. William Cotton II unfortunately sold a vast quantity of the collection due to a lack of space to house the massive collection. By the time the collection was passed to Cotton III the collection was but a fraction of the size that Rodger’s once was.  Fortunately for Plymouth, Cotton III gifted the collection to the people of Plymouth in two installments, in 1852 and 1862.

Once the collection was given in its entirety in 1862 it held around 4,700 prints and engravings, and some unique and extensive series of illustrations of the Italian, Flemish, French and English schools. The bookcases contain around 500 volumes of rare and valuable specimens, from early typography to Greek and Roman classics and Fine Arts. There are also 1,500 volumes of English books, which contain articles of ‘veriu’, carvings, and illustrated 15th century missal. 250 original drawings by ‘Old Masters’ are also included, from names such as Rubens, Van Dyke, Leonardo da Vinci, and more. There are also framed paintings, some of which are by Joshua Reynolds, drawings, illustrated manuscripts, terracotta statuettes, bronzes, antique 17th century vases, bookcases, and cabinets, most especially one from the 17th century inlaid with red tortoise! 

For more information on the events that we have organized please visit – 



Author: youngexplainers1

Young Explainers is an annual programme in partnership between Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, and Plymouth University, incorporating students from a wide range of disciplines. The project changes each year, so keep up to date through our blog.

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