English Water Coulour Painters – Father And Son

The Prose and Poetry of Painting—Alexander Cozens—His work before coming to England—His influence over his son—John Cozens—Effect of his art on Constable—His exhibited drawings at South Kensington, and in the Dyce Collection.

BUT with all our admiration and respect for the pioneer work of the topographical draughts-men, we must be careful not to lose sight of the very real and very wide difference which exists between the prose and poetry of pictorial art. There is not more difference between the work of the gossiping antiquary and that of the great world poets than there is between the meritorious draughtsmen of whom we have been speaking and the cluster of great artists whose works constitute the glory of the English Water Colour School.

The first supremely great artist with whom we have to deal is John Robert Cozens, who was born in 1752, twenty-seven years after Paul Sandby. In his hands water colour took its place for the first time in English art as a perfectly complete and independent medium of expression. His best works are neither mere sketches nor hasty records or projects, nor yet preparatory stages in the operations of the engravers. At his best his water colour drawings became original and unique works of art, productions which for dignity of thought and for all the higher spiritual qualities can take their place unflinchingly beside the works of the greatest oil painters. The influence of his noble achievements was decisive on English landscape art. Turner and Girtin studied his drawings, six of Girtin’s copies being mentioned in Dr Monro’s sale catalogue in 1883, and a great number of Turner’s copies are in existence. Turner is reported to have said that he learned more from one of Cozens’s paintings than from any other source. And Constable wrote of him as ” the greatest genius that ever touched landscape.”

There is nothing to show that the English topographical draughtsmen exercised the slightest influence over Cozens’s art. They made his art possible perhaps by helping to create a market for his work ; but his work is of an entirely different genus from theirs. The impeccability of his craftsmanship, the lucidity and gracious self- mastery of his designs connect him by spiritual ties with Claude Lorraine and the greater Venetians like Paul Veronese; in the sweetness and sincerity which differences his work from the pomposity and emptiness of most of the contemporary followers of Claude, one feels his affinity with Thomas Gainsborough.

At first sight nothing is more incomprehensible than to find the gems of the purest and most consummate art scattered among the rough stones and rubbish of English topography and antiquarianism. But if we study the work of the artist’s father, Alexander Cozens, their appearance seems natural and almost inevitable.

We do not know when ALEXANDER COZENS was born. He was a natural son of Peter the Great, but his mother was English. He was sent by his father to study painting in Italy, and came to England in 1746. On his arrival here he was already a highly skilled draughts-man with a fine sense of elegance and design. He was among the exhibitors at the first public exhibition in London of works by living artists (1760) ; became a member of the Society of Artists; and when the R.A. was formed exhibited eight works between 1772 and 1781. He was one of the most successful teachers of drawing of his time, giving lessons to the Prince of Wales and becoming drawing-master at Eton from 1763-1768 ; his success drew some ill-natured comments from his rivals, one of them, Edward Dayes, the bilious master of Girtin, dubbing him Blotmaster-General to the Town. He published several books on subjects connected with his profession ; only one of these, however, is in the British Museum. Among the list of subscribers to his book on ” The Principles of Beauty,” one finds the names of Reynolds, Burke, Garrick, Beckford, Flaxman, and other distinguished artists and men of culture. The work, which is a most ingenious attempt to separate the a priori from the empirical elements in facial beauty, shows that the writer was not only devoted to his art, but that he was possessed of a strong and clear intellect and a breadth of culture that must have contrasted rather strongly with that possessed by most of his rivals in art.

Of his own drawings and paintings little is known. No doubt his time was largely taken up with teaching. But from the little that we know of his work, it is evident that if his merits had not been somewhat obscured by the brilliance of the SOn, whose genius he had developed with so much care and intelligence, the name of Alexander Cozens would have stood higher than it does in the history of English landscape. His two small drawings at South Kensington tower head and shoulders above the work of his contemporaries. A Landscape, a pen drawing with sepia, a view across country with beautifully drawn mountains in the distance, reminds one of De Koninck and of the work of the school of Rembrandt. The Landscape with Bridge, worked in neutral tint reinforced with sepia and pen, might pass for a work by his son. There is no clue to the date of these drawings.

At the Print Room we are more fortunate. By a lucky accident we can see exactly what sort of an artist Alexander Cozens was when he came to England, and we can compare this with some of his work produced thirty-eight years later.

A bundle of drawings which the artist lost in Germany just before coming to England, happens to have come down to us without getting separated. The majority of these are views in Italy, elaborately finished and composed, and worked in pen and ink in imitation of line engravings. The gradations of tone are got by watering the ink. The buildings and topographical features are drawn with great care and skill, but the trees are mannered., in the Italian style. In spite of their accomplishment they leave one cold ; the mechanism of Italian prettiness robs them of much of their interest. Some few drawings have been partially coloured. The most highly finished of the coloured drawings being two which have been mounted together, one On a Country Road, the other An Italian Hamlet (29 a and b in Mr Binyon’s catalogue). Both of these are much brighter in local colour than any Girtin the present writer has seen. The first-named is worked entirely in transparent colour over a very faint pencil preparation ; the other has an additional pen outline round the objects.

It is in the pencil and Indian ink drawings that one sees the nearest approach to his son’s work. An extensive view over undulating country (1867-10-12-4), with trees, buildings, rivers, etc., and a low range of hills beyond, has been drawn carefully with pencil and worked up with pale washes of Indian ink, the central mass of light being left near the centre of the composition to serve as a focus for the interest.

These youthful works are, however, too carefully rounded, almost too insipid to excite much interest by themselves. They are the work of a well-trained student, diligent and very intelligent ; but they betray the temper rather of an amateur than of a strong personality. However, the four mezzotints from the artist’s drawings by William Pether, published in May 1784 and July 17 85, show how his residence in England and familiarity with Gainsborough’s art had developed his powers. These Alpine scenes have the perfect serenity and beauty of his son’s consummate achievements; the polished Italian manner has been transmuted into something of real pathos and dignity.

Brought up and carefully trained by such a thoughtful and capable master, there is little wonder that JOHN ROBERT COZENS stepped forward as a perfectly equipped artist at an age when most men are still deliberating as to the choice of a career. At the age of fifteen (1767) he begins to exhibit with the Incorporated Society of Artists, and when he is twenty-five he is chosen to accompany Mr R. Payne Knight on a tour in Switzerland and Italy. In this year (1776) his solitary contribution to the exhibition of the Royal Academy was sent, A Landscape, with Hannibal, in his March over the Alps, showing his Army the fertile plains of Italy. This picture, which is said to have been in oils, has been unfortunately lost sight of, but Turner, who was only one year old when it was exhibited, must have seen it some fifteen or twenty years later, for he spoke of it as having taught him more than any other picture ; and in 1812, he also exhibited his Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps, with some lines of his own attached as a motto, showing at least how powerfully the subject had affected his imagination.

Cozens seems to have visited Italy again, this time with Mr William Beckford. He was back in England in 1783, his professional career coming to an end in 1794, when he became mentally deranged.

C. R. Leslie, the painter, the author of ” A Handbook for Young Painters,” whose. interest seems to have been stimulated by his friend Constable’s enthusiasm, was the first writer to give adequate attention to Cozens’s work. We are indebted to the inquiries he instituted among the artist’s surviving relatives for the very few facts we possess about the father and son. Leslie mentions having seen ” a miniature of John Cozens, in which he appears a beautiful boy of fifteen or sixteen, of a fair complexion, and with a quantity of light hair falling in curls over his shoulders, and also a portrait of him by Pine, of the size of life, and apparently when he was about thirty years old.” The artist possessed, he adds, “a handsome, thoughtful, pale face, certainly bearing a re-semblance to the Emperor Alexander, as he looked when I saw him in England.” What has now become of these two portraits ?

Of Cozens’s art Leslie says that it ” made such an impression on Constable, that in a moment of enthusiastic admiration he pronounced John Cozens to be ‘the greatest genius that ever touched landscape.’ ” Leslie seems to think this a rather exaggerated estimate, but certainly Constable was more sensitive to the higher beauties of landscape art than Leslie. And those who have once fallen under the spell of Cozens’s impeccable art are inclined to think no praise too great.

However, Constable appears to have succeeded in inducing his friend to perceive something of the charm of Cozens’s work, for Leslie continues : “‘ Cozens,’ said Constable, ‘is all poetry.’ But it is poetry that wins gently and imperceptibly. So modest and unobtrusive are the beauties of his drawings, that you might pass them without notice, for the painter himself never says, ° look at this or that,’ he trusts implicitly to your own taste and feeling ; and his works are full of half-concealed beauties, such as Nature herself shows but coyly, and these are often the most fleeting appearances of light. Not that his style is without emphasis, for then it would be insipid, which it never is, nor ever in the least commonplace. Constable’s great admiration of him breaks out in many passages in his letters. At one time he speaks of drawings by Cozens keeping him cheerful ; and again he says, ` In the room where I am writing there are hanging up two beautiful small drawings by Cozens : one a wood, close and very solemn, the other a view from Vesuvius, looking over Portici, very lovely.’ ” “This exquisite artist,” adds Leslie, ” had an eye equally adapted to the grandeur, the elegance, and the simplicity of Nature ; but he loved best not her most gorgeous language, but her gentlest, her most silent eloquence ” (p. 262 sq.).

It is not easy to express the charms of Cozens’s work in words, as these remarks of Leslie prove. The fact that the artist annihilates so completely all the meaner and subjective elements of his own personality leaves his drawings flavourless to those who regard art merely as a medium for the exhibition of the artist’s whims and caprices. It is only by a long and loving familiarity with the most perfect art that one can discover the art in such a painting as the Isle of Elba at South Kensington. There seems no composition, no design, no colour in it. Only, as one looks at it, the terrible overpowering impression of natural forces steals over one. It is these ‘inhuman forces, the mountains them-selves, that crush one. It is only afterwards that one can realise the mighty effort of genius that is required before an artist can deliver with such undimmed force the very essence of his moments of communion with Nature.

The other works of the artist at South Kensington are in a gentler or more serene mood. The Campagna, Rome, The Tomb of the Horatii and Curatii, Santa Giustina, Padua, The Valley with Winding Streams, Mount Vesuvius, and the larger View of the Campagna, Rome in the Dyce Collection, all possess the same coherence and admirable unity of impression. He never seems to compose. It is the sentiment of the scene itself that steals over one, so powerfully and convincingly has the artist done his work. If we did not know, we might almost take him for a mere copyist, instead of a mighty demiurge creating with the certainty and inevitableness of Nature herself.