Objects from the collection - Eight thumbnail images of collection objects including a painting by Reynolds, sculpture and several drawings and prints


This site is currently under development whilst we improve access to the collection data. This will be undertaken in stages between 2013 to 2015, so if you have enquiries about the collection, please contact us.

The collection encompasses works of art from all the major European schools, as well as other types of work:

  • Oil paintings - including works by Reynolds and the different European schools.
  • Drawings and watercolours - including several Old Master and English drawings and watercolour drawings of the Mughal school.
  • Prints - the extensive collection numbering approximately seven thousand includes substantial holdings by Dutch and Flemish, French and Italian and English schools.
  • Sculptures - though few in number the collection of bronzes, plasters and other sculpture are largely of the Italian, French and English schools, whilst the ceramics are mainly oriental porcelain.
  • Furniture - including the fine bookcases especially commissioned to house the library and an Italian collectors cabinet.
  • Library - around 2000 volumes covering all manner of subject matter from history and archaeology, literature and the arts including many illustrated books.
  • Reynolds - a wide selection of material relating to the artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723 to 1792) is held in the collection.

Download the MP3 file below to hear about mythology in the Collection, or read the accompanying transcript which provides additional information to the MP3. These were originally produced by the Young Explainers in 2013 for the Museum and Art Gallery.

Audio icon Mythology in the Cottonian Collection by Olivia Davies and Eleanor Barker. [3 mins 48 secs - 3.48MB]

Collecting works through the centuries

Of national and international importance the collection as it exists today emerged through two hundred years of collecting, from the mid 17th century to the mid 19th century.

The earliest part of the collection, the core of the library, was formed by Robert Townson (1640 to 1707) who bequeathed it to his son William. He added some prints and drawings, as well as more books, before leaving it to his friend and protégé Charles Rogers (1711 to 1784). Rogers built on this modest assemblage over the main decades of the 18th century, between the 1730s and 80s. During these years his wealth, social contacts and interest in the Pursuit allowed him to amass a quite remarkable collection reflecting his interests, taste and patronage.

Rogers' great passion was prints and drawings, and coupled with his knowledge, discerning eye and acquaintance with many of the leading artists, printmakers and dealers of his day allowed him to collect works of high quality. His connoisseurship gained him considerable standing amongst his contemporaries, his collection duly recognised as one of the finest in England. On his death the collection passed through three generations of the Cotton family. The first William Cotton left the collection largely unchanged, but the second, Rogers nephew, depleted the collection by around two thirds. The final William Cotton, of Ivybridge added to the collection some books and the other Reynolds portraits and material before gifting it to Plymouth.

For more information about the collectors and how the collection was formed, visit the collection history page.