This small oil sketch was painted by Cox in 1853, late in his career and at a time when he was enduring both personal and professional difficulties. He had suffered from serious illness in March 1853 and wrote to his son: 'I am now confined to my bedroom - a most violent attack of bronchitis, which nearly suffocates me at times. If I should be spared, I will get rid of some commissions, and make no more promises, but merely go out when I please and paint what I please' (quoted in Solly, p.227). In June 1853 Cox suffered a stroke, which impaired his vision and coordination irreparably.
The Tate painting shows a scene repeated often in Cox's later landscapes and belongs to what has been termed Cox's 'lost traveller' series, in which, over a number of years, he explored the motif of figures, sometimes with horses or dogs, seen from behind, journeying across breezy, low-lying terrain, often a moor, common or beach. The figures in the Tate painting correspond closely to those in two similar versions in oil with the title Going to the Hayfield, one in the City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and one in a private collection, both of which Cox painted around the same time, in 1853. It is likely that The Road Across the Common was completed early in 1853, before Cox was disabled by his stroke. Solly's biography of Cox notes that he painted the Birmingham Hayfield, compositionally and stylistically very similar to the Tate painting, before he developed bronchitis, and that he painted little after June of that year while he was recuperating after the stroke.
Cox was saddened and frustrated by contemporary public opinion of his work in both oil and watercolour at this time, which criticized the loose, sketchy brushwork and impressionist handling, seen in the Tate painting. He had developed this manner in order to convey more immediately his feeling for the atmosphere of a landscape rather than its topographical detail, but it was attributed, especially after his stroke in 1853, to diminishing powers of observation. He wrote to his son in a letter of 18 April 1853, after submitting work for the annual Royal Academy exhibition:
I wish now I had taken Mrs. Roberts' advice and sent my drawings in without a price, as it strikes me the committee think them too rough; they forget they are the work of the mind which I consider very far before portraits of places (views) … I hope to be in London on the 3rd of May, and then I will take out of the price-book the sums I have asked for my four large drawings, and if there are those of the public who appreciate mind before mechanism, they will write to me to learn how I estimate them. I may be wrong, but the world has yet to be taught.
(Quoted in Solly, p.228-9).
By the time of the International Exhibition in 1862, three years after Cox's death, at which a number of his late works were exhibited, there was a warmer critical reaction to his later work. F.T. Palgrave in the Fine Arts Catalogue compared his approach with that of Turner:
They belong peculiarly to the artist's later style, in which his often blurred and imperfectly realized execution is a severe lesson to the lover of the neat and the conventional. Yet this seemingly slight and hasty touch conceals a thoughtfulness and a delicacy in handling, which is more like Turner's than any other man's work.
(Quoted in Solly, p.250).
N. Neal Solly, Memoir of the Life of David Cox, London 1873; facsimile edition, London 1973
William Hall, A Biography of David Cox, London 1881
F.Gordon Roe, Cox the Master: the Life and Art of David Cox 1783-1859, Leigh-on-Sea 1946