The outstanding Cottonian Collection is an internationally important collection of paintings, books, prints, ceramics, bronzes and sculpture.
The collection’s story begins in seventeenth-century London when a wealthy merchant, Robert Townson (1640-1707), began collecting books and prints. Over the next two hundred years the collection was passed through the hands of six related gentleman who continued to buy new pieces for the collection.
Of these six men, it was Charles Rogers (1711-1784) who was the most active. He bought several hundred Old Master and English drawings and watercolours, thousands of rare prints, along with books, ceramics and sculpture. He also designed the beautiful furniture in which the collection is stored. Through his collection, he gained many famous friends and became well-known in London’s art collecting world.
Rogers’ great-nephew William Cotton III (1794 -1863) donated the collection to the people of Plymouth in 1853 ‘for the purposes of amusement and instruction by the inhabitants of the Towns of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport and their vicinity…’ The collection was open to paying members of the Plymouth Proprietary Library, except for one day a week when non-members were allowed to view the collection.
In 1915, an Act of Parliament transferred the care of the collection to the Plymouth City Corporation and the Cottonian found a new home at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. For over one hundred years, the collection has been on display to the public for free.
Visit the Cottonian Collection history page to find out more information about who added to the collection through the centuries.
Designated status and research
The Cottonian Collection was designated in 1998, as a recognised collection of national importance. This scheme is administered by Arts Council England. Find out more about the Designation project, along with other significant research on the collection, in our projects page.
Cottonian Collection catalogue online
The entire Cottonian Collection has been published to the museum’s online catalogue. You can access all records and filter within results. Alternatively, use the links below to find further information and specific links to the catalogue for each area of the collection.
Please note that not all records are currently complete to the same standard. If there are any errors, please get in touch with us.
Find out about the types of work held in the collection:
There are approximately three hundred drawings and watercolours from the 16th to 18th centuries.
The items of furniture include the fine bookcases especially commissioned to house the library and an Italian collector's cabinet.
Around 2000 volumes covering all manner of subject matter from history and archaeology, literature and the arts including many illustrated books.
There are 22 oil paintings in the Cottonian Collection including a number of works by Reynolds.
Some 6,000 or so prints of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries are contained within the Cottonian Collection, grouped largely by school or subject and mounted in a series of large volumes.
A small collection of bronzes, plasters and other sculptures largely of the Italian, French and English schools.
There is a wide selection of material in the collection relating to the artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-1792).
A number of ceramics, seals and medals and other items that reflect the interests of the collectors.
A list of featured artists whose work is represented in the collection.
On the blog
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery was awarded £49,945 from the Arts Council England’s Designation Development Fund to carry out some much needed research and conservation work on the historic furniture. Find out about the work involved.
Plymouth’s Greatest Gift was a project that was run during 2013-14 by a group of students from University of Plymouth, in collaboration with Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, to rediscover the Cottonian Collection. Find out about the research, events and new interpretation they were involved in.