In 1850, when Cox painted this small canvas, he had been developing his oil painting technique in earnest for nearly a decade, having taken lessons from the much younger painter William Müller (1812-45) at the beginning of the 1840s. He had begun to achieve in oil the spontaneity and immediacy of his watercolour work which later earned him comparison with Constable (1776-1837) and the early French Impressionists. In an earlier letter to his son, Cox wrote of his keen interest in taking up the medium: 'There is not half the trouble with oil as with water colours. I should never again touch water colours only for my honour and duty to the society I belong to … Give me oil. I only wish I had begun earlier in life; the pleasure in painting in oil is so very satisfactory'(quoted in Solly, p.186).
This painting, which has been known also under the title Crossing the Common, shows an old woman and her dog, seen from behind, struggling in windy weather across a flat stretch of land, with distant farm buildings and cattle. The horizon is low, allowing a dramatic blustery sky to play a significant part in the composition. Cox did not identify the landscape in the painting, but the flatness of the terrain suggests that it was sketched in England, rather than on one of his annual painting visits to north Wales.
The diminutive size and sketchy appearance of the work is characteristic of Cox's late works in oil:
It was the disinclination during the close of his life to embark upon a large picture which led to the comparatively small size of his paintings in oil. He could not command the fire and perseverence needed for the completion of a picture of large dimensions, hence the fact that a great majority of his oil pictures are on a small scale, and bear the impress of rapid and facile execution.
(Gilbert R. Redgrave, David Cox and Peter de Wint, London, 1891, p.41)
Cox frequently repeated several versions of a particular theme or motif, often at the request of friends and collectors of his work. The subject matter and composition of the Tate painting relate it closely to a number of other works in oil and watercolour painted between 1846 and 1853 which depict travellers crossing low, windswept terrain, several of which have the title or subtitle A Windy Day. A number of paintings of this period exhibited at the major 1890 exhibition of Cox's work at Birmingham City Art Gallery, of which the Tate painting is one, bore this title, and there is a watercolour version of the same composition in a private collection. The figure in the Tate painting battling against the wind with billowing shawl and bonnet is echoed in reverse in Cox's 1851 painting Flying the Kite: a Windy Day (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and almost identically in The Cross Roads, 1850 (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery), in which the dog also appears. An admirer of his work reportedly remarked to Cox: 'How fond you are of painting wind, Mr. Cox! There is always a breeze in your pictures! I declare I shall take cold, and must put on my shawl!' (Hall, p.154).
Cox's later oil technique, seen in this work in the vigorous, loose brushwork over a light ground - left untouched in many parts of the painting and used for the stone colour of the distant buildings -was much praised for its ability to convey the effect of windy weather. One critic wrote:
No other English artist has equalled him in suggesting the bustle and blow of the wind and the drenching fall of rain. It is noteworthy that he represented these not merely by their effect on trees and grass, but also … on the atmosphere itself. The technique which he adopted was peculiarly suited to the interpretation of these forces, and the sensitive touches with which he painted … the Windy Day … express more convincingly than could be achieved by other means the currents in the atmospheric envelope, and the effect produced on it by the passage of light and moisture.
(F. Gordon Roe, David Cox, London 1924, p.126)
Cox had relatively little success with exhibiting and selling his oils in London, in spite of their later critical acclaim, and they were mainly bought by collectors in the West Midlands where he lived. It is possible that the Tate painting was among them.
N. Neal Solly, Memoir of the Life of David Cox, London 1873; facsimile edition, London 1973
Trenchard Cox, David Cox, London 1947, reproduced p.100
William Hall, A Biography of David Cox, London,1881