Towards the end of June 1803 Cotman and Paul Sandby Munn (1773-1845) left London and boarded the coach for Yorkshire. Recently the journey to the romantic north had become established as an essential experience for a young landscape artist. Girtin had toured Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland in 1796 and Turner followed in 1797, both securing the patronage of Edward Lascelles of Harewood House. When they reached York the two artists stayed with the Cholmeley family of Brandsby Hall, having already become acquainted with Mrs Cholmeley's brother, Sir Henry Englefield. They arrived at Brandsby on Thursday 7 July 1803.
On Saturday 9 July Cotman and Munn went to Helmsley and from there they visited nearby Rievaulx Abbey. Mrs Cholmeley wrote to her son Francis that 'they returned last Sunday night from Rivaulx [sic] in raptures, thinking it altogether the finest ruin they had ever seen. Many of the watercolours, etchings and drawings from this trip are reproduced in D. Hill, Cotman in the North, New Haven and London, 2005, pp. 25-33. From the watercolours Cotman executed it seems that his interest lay in the ruined parts of the Abbey rather than the whole; architectural accuracy was subordinated to the aim of depicting the picturesque. Cotman returned to Rievaulx during a three day visit to Helmsley in August of the same year.
The present watercolour depicts the east end of the Abbey taken from the outside of the South Arcade. A watercolour of the same part of the Abbey, but from a different angle, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a pencil drawing from a more distant viewpoint is in Tate Britain, London (D. Hill, op.cit., pp. 30-31, pls. 30 and 33).