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

Welcome to the Cottonian Collection

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.