Catalogue entry

David Cox 1783-1859

T04130 Rhyl Sands c.1854

Oil on canvas 454 x 630 (17 7/8 x 24 7/8)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1985
Prov: ? The artist's son, David Cox jr, sold Christie's 3 May 1873 (132) £409.10s. bt Agnew and sold 19 May to J.S. Morgan, New York (but see text below); ...; Palser Gallery (label formerly on stretcher, now separately preserved) by 1936 when exhibited at its Ruskin Galleries, Birmingham; bt from them by the Hon. John Trevor Roberts (later Lord Clwyd), probably the same year; bt from Lord Clwyd by Tate Gallery
Exh: David Cox, Ruskin Galleries, Birmingham, April 1936 (45; information from Birmingham City Art Gallery but no catalogue traced); Centenary Exhibition of the Works of David Cox ..., Birmingham City Art Gallery, June-July 1959 (123); Landscape in Britain c.1750-1850, Tate Gallery, Nov.1973-Feb.1974 (259, repr.)
Lit: Jeremy Maas, Victorian Painters, 1969, p.46, repr. p.53 (col.); [Jane Farington], David Cox 1783-1859, exh. cat., Manchester City Art Gallery 1982, p.7. Also repr: Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, p.62 (col.)

Although Cox had previously made tours of Wales, it was only after settling at Harborne near Birmingham in 1841 that he began to pay regular visits to the principality. 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 (N. Neal Solly, Memoir of the Life of David Cox, 1873, p.117) 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 on or following a visit, or possibly two visits, in 1854 when he was aged 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 ...' (Solly 1873, p.179). It is not known whether he stopped at Rhyl on this second visit.

Three oils by Cox of Rhyl sands have survived. Closest in character to T04130 is the picture in Manchester City Art Gallery (458 x 635, 18 x 25; repr. Trenchard Cox, David Cox, 1947, p.106), which shares the same light palette and sketch-like handling. In this version the buildings at the right of T04130 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, signed and dated 1854-5, is in Birmingham City Art Gallery (743 x 1353, 29 1/4 x 53 1/4); Stephen Wildman, David Cox 1783-1859, exh. cat., Birmingham City Art Gallery 1983, no.93, repr.). 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. According to Solly, Cox sold this painting to a Mr Croft for £100, the largest price he ever received (Solly 1873, pp.183, 195).

There is no direct evidence for the date of the Tate Gallery and Manchester paintings but they 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 visit or visits to Rhyl in 1854. Neither appears to have been sold in Cox 's lifetime. In the absence of any other likely candidates, they are presumed to have been the two most expensive of the four Rhyl pictures included in the David Cox jr sale at Christie's on 3 May 1873: lot 132, 'Rhyl Sands', 390 gns; lot 136, 'Rhyl', 290 gns. Both were bought by Agnew and sold again shortly afterwards, lot 132 to the American collector J.S. Morgan and lot 136 to Edward Crompton Potter of Manchester. Potter's picture has a continuous provenance from then until 1905, when it was bought by Eyles in the C.J. Galloway sale at Christie's on 24 June. The provenance of the Manchester picture can be traced back without a break to the Alexander Young sale, Christie's, 13 March 1913, when it was bought by C.A. Jackson. It has been assumed that the Manchester picture is the Potter version but, in view of the 1905-13 gap in the provenance, this is not certain. (The compiler is indebted to Stephen Wildman and Evelyn Joll for advice on these provenances).

When he sold T04130 to the Tate Gallery Lord Clwyd was unsure exactly when and where he had acquired it but suggested among other possibilities that he had bought it from C. Douglas Thomson about fifty years previously. This is confirmed by the label, found on the back, of Thomson's Palser Gallery and Ruskin Galleries, and by the fact that a Cox exhibition held at the latter in 1936 included a Rhyl sands painting. It has not yet been possible to trace the whereabouts of the picture, whether in England or the USA, before 1936.

Two other, presumably smaller oils of Rhyl were in the David Cox jr sale in 1873: lot 134, 'Rhyl Sands', 130 gns; lot 135, 'Rhyl with Terrace', 130 gns; both bought by Herbert. One of them may be the 11 x 16 inch 'Rhyl' described by Solly when it was still in the younger Cox 's collection: 'A wide sandy shore, with a strip of dark sea breaking on the distant sands. The figure of a Welsh woman on horseback and some shrimpers with nets give character to the scene. Grey clouds cover the sky, which has rather a threatening aspect' (Solly 1873, p.209, where dated c.1848). The other maybe the 7 3/4 x 14 inch 'Rhyl from the Sea' sold from Frederick Nettlefold's collection at Christie's, 5 June 1913 (98).

Several watercolours by Cox of Rhyl sands are known, including one, dated 1854, which corresponds approximately in composition to the Manchester and Tate paintings (Phillips, Edinburgh, 28 Nov. 1986, lot 93, repr., as 'Attributed to David Cox '; Stephen Wildman kindly drew this to the compiler's attention). 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.

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' (A Biography of David Cox, ed. J.T. Bunce, 1881, pp.153-4). Cox 's technique in the Tate and Manchester pictures, and indeed his whole approach to the matter in hand, is certainly without parallel in British landscape painting of the 1850s.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.62-4