Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection

ALEXANDER COZENS
1717-1786

19 A Blot: Tigers c.1770-80

Brush and grey and black washes on laid paper 19.7 x 28 (7 3/4 x 11)

T08116

Much of the text to Cozens's A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1786) is devoted to expounding the idea of the 'blot' as an image of great suggestive power - by implication one as infinitely various as the cloud in the passage from Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra (Act IV, Scene ii) which he quotes on the title-page:

Sometime we see a Cloud that's dragonish,
A Vapour sometime like a Bear, or Lion,
A tower'd citadel, a pendant Rock,
A forked Mountain, or Promontory,
With Trees upon't, that nod unto the World
And mock our Eyes with Air.
In theory, then, almost any subject might be suggested by a blot. In practice, however, Cozens makes it clear early on in the treatise that his brief is the 'Composing [of] landscapes by invention', and it is only landscape blots which he chooses to illustrate, along with a repertoire of skies that might be incorporated into such designs (see under no.17). Later on in the treatise, under Rule IV, section 5, he suggests that the student might make separate blots of 'single parts or objects' that might be incorporated into a landscape drawing, such as 'trees, thickets, water, rocks etc' (see also under no.18). However, judging by the blots that survive, neither he nor his pupils can often have made such specialised blots as these, least of all of animal forms - this one apparently being unique.

Opp? calls this 'the most oriental' of all Cozens's designs, and, indeed, it had a powerful impact on the Chinese author Chiang Yee when he saw the drawing in the 1930s (Opp? 1952, p.102, and Chiang Yee, The Silent Traveller in London, 1938, p.158). Opp? likens Cozens's procedure to that of the Chinese artist, emphasising his power of memory in retaining a subject (perhaps only casually seen for an instant), and then unconsciously moulding it into pictorial form, freed from all superfluous detail and incident. In this drawing, Opp? writes, 'Cozens omits all minor recognizable details and allows the unconscious swirl of his hand to project the mental image of the beasts with the movement and vitality of their masses' (1946, p.9). Cozens wrote in A New Method that 'in order to be able to make out designs from blots', 'a person must have genius', and he defined 'true genius' as the power which 'conceives strongly, invents with originality, and executes readily'. Such qualities apply wholeheartedly to this drawing, with its bold design, simplicity of form and vigorous, expressive brushwork.

As Opp? pointed out, a true blot must, strictly speaking, have no sky and be completed in brushwork in only one tone of black on white paper. This blot, however, has a layer of grey wash applied over the brushwork, whilst no.18 has both sky and additional washes. Blots were, of course, intended to be worked up by means of tracing into more elaborate and detailed drawings (see no.20). However, for quite a number of them, including nos.18 and 19, Cozens seems to have been content just to add a sky or a wash of grey or brown, and then leave them as they stood; Opp? called these 'blot-sketches' (1952, pp.100-2).

Anne Lyles

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.19 no.74, reproduced in colour p.75