David Cox
Rhyl Sands c.1854

Artwork details

David Cox 1783–1859
Rhyl Sands
Date c.1854
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 454 x 630 mm
frame: 637 x 817 x 94 mm
Acquisition Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1985
Not on display


Although Cox had previously made tours of Wales, it was only after settling at Harborne near Birmingham in 1841 that he began to visit the area regularly. Bettws-y-Coed was his favourite destination, reached by train via Chester, Rhyl and Conway, where he usually took a jaunting car for the rest of the journey. These visits began in 1842. He spent a day or two at Rhyl that August on his way to Bettws and first exhibited a watercolour of Rhyl sands at the Society of Painters in Water Colours the following year.

Cox's most celebrated paintings of Rhyl are the oils he made in 1854, at the age of seventy-one. He set out on 4 August that year with his son, his old friend William Stone Ellis and his housekeeper Mrs Fowler. 'They went to Rhyl, Abergele, and on to Pentrefoilas, and afterwards to Capel Curig, not very far from Bettws', his first biographer records. 'They were away some weeks on this trip, and Cox, although feeble, was able to go on with his work as usual. Later in the autumn Cox felt rather restless, regretting that he had not been to stay at dear old Bettws, so he made a second journey into Wales' (N.N. Solly, Memoir of the Life of David Cox, 1873, reprinted 1973, p.179). It is not known whether he stopped at Rhyl on this second visit.

Three oils by Cox of Rhyl sands have survived, although it is known from sales records that he made others. Closest in style to the Tate's painting is the picture in Manchester City Art Gallery, which shares the same light palette and sketch-like handling. In the Manchester version the buildings at the right of Rhyl Sands are seen from a wider angle and given greater prominence, while the sky is more uniformly painted and less broken up by clouds. A much larger and more conventionally finished canvas, dated 1854-5, is in Birmingham City Art Gallery. Unlike the Manchester and Tate pictures, this shows Rhyl sands at or near high tide. The sea is a principal feature of the composition and the figures are concentrated on what remains of the beach at the right-hand side. The date of the Tate Gallery and Manchester paintings is not known, but the pictures may well have been the starting point for the more elaborate Birmingham canvas of 1854-5 and can therefore reasonably be associated with Cox's visits to Rhyl in 1854. Neither appears to have been sold in Cox's lifetime. Several watercolours by Cox of Rhyl sands are known, including one, dated 1854, which corresponds approximately in composition to the Manchester and Tate paintings. It is difficult to say whether this or possibly other watercolours were used in any way as preparations for the two oils or whether the latter were painted directly on the spot, which is the impression they give.

Primarily a watercolorist, Cox only took up oil painting seriously around 1840, when he took lessons from William M-4ller. Rhyl Sands shows him working with total mastery in the medium. According to his friend and second biographer William Hall, Cox 'had misgivings that his method of working was not in accordance with the accepted practice - he cherished the notion that there were secrets which "the oil men" would not tell him ... He suspected that something was wrong, or at least odd and unusual in the manipulation, or in the laying on of his colours' (J.T. Bunce, ed., A Biography of David Cox, 1881, pp.153-4). Cox's technique in the Tate and Manchester pictures, and indeed his whole approach, is certainly unique in British landscape painting of the 1850s.

Further reading:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1988, pp.62-4, reproduced
[Jane Farington], David Cox 1783-1859, exhibition catalogue, Manchester City Art Gallery 1982, pp.6-8

Terry Riggs
February 1998