Born in Norwich in 1782 to a respectable family, John Sell Cotman was educated at the local grammar school. His early artistic training is undocumented, and it is unclear what led Cotman in the direction of art as a vocation. In 1798, however, he left for London in pursuit of an artistic career. He first worked as a colorist of engravings for Ackermann's Repository of Arts. Two years after his arrival in London, he was awarded the great silver palette of the Society of Arts, and his work made its first appearance in a Royal Academy exhibition. In 1801, Cotman joined the Sketching Society, a group of young artists which included such members as Thomas Girtin, John Varley, and Paul Sandby Munn.
Cotman made a number of tours of the English countryside, in particular Wales and Yorkshire. His travels had a profound effect on him and would serve as inspiration for the plethora of mountains, craggy peaks, and lakes nestled among hills that may be seen in his images throughout his working life. In 1806 Cotman returned to Norwich and became President of the Norwich Society of Artists shortly thereafter. Much of Cotman's work from this period took the form of architectural and landscape etchings. In later years, Cotman produced some of the greatest watercolors in the history of British art, which garnered his fame as one of the most original and gifted English landscape painters.