Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


15 In the Farnese Gardens, Rome 1746

Pen and black ink and grey washes on laid paper; image to ruled border 23.7 x 37.9 (9 3/8 x 14 7/8); sheet size 24.5 x 39 (9 5/8 x 15 3/8)
Inscribed in pen and brown ink lower left 'Alex.r Cozens.1746 Roma'


'Almost as full of Systems as the Universe' - so spoke the eccentric millionaire William Beckford of Fonthill in 1781 of his friend and artistic prot?g? Alexander Cozens. Today Cozens is best known for the treatises he wrote in which he attempted to categorise landscape types, the most famous of these being his last, A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1786), where he gave his most detailed explanation of how to compose landscapes using ink blots (nos.18-20). Cozens was a deeply intellectual artist, and his treatises have a serious moral purpose, even if some of his contemporaries failed to grasp this, especially the topographer Edward Dayes (1763-1804) who disparagingly dubbed Cozens 'Blotmaster-General to the town'. For Cozens's systems for inventing imaginary landscape compositions were intended to produce landscapes which could evoke different types of mood and emotion in the viewer, and thus be spiritually uplifting (see under no.17). Indeed, in an era when landscape was considered one of the lowliest categories of painting (history painting being considered the most elevated), Cozens promoted the revolutionary idea that landscape was capable of effecting moral good.

Cozens was born in Russia in 1717. In the first of his articles on a British artist written in 1919 Paul Opp? confidently put paid to the long-standing rumour that Cozens was the illegitimate son of Peter the Great, surmising instead that the artist's father was Richard Cozens (from Deptford), one of the Tsar's principal shipbuilders. In his later, definitive account of the work of Alexander and John Robert Cozens (1952, pp.1-4) Opp? then speculated that Peter the Great may have been Alexander Cozens's godfather, something only recently confirmed (Sloan 1985, p.70). Cozens was educated in England from 1727 but appears to have returned to Russia in the early 1740s, sailing in 1746 from St Petersburg for Italy where he remained for two years. He was one of the earliest British artists to study in Rome, Richard Dalton having arrived only a few years before (no.14).

Nearly sixty watercolours and drawings by Cozens have survived from his stay in Rome. A group of fifty-seven of them, now in the British Museum, were said to have been dropped by Cozens from his saddlebag on his way home to England through Germany, and later found and purchased by his son John Robert Cozens in Florence in 1776 (Sloan 1986, p.9). One of these is an unfinished grey wash study, A Tomb by a Road, on which Cozens superimposed a one-inch grid. This enabled him to transfer the design onto a second sheet, which he then worked up into this, the finished version of the composition, adding figures, clouds and careful pen-and-ink outlines to delineate form, as well as a signature and date (Sloan 1986, pp.14-15). Many years later J.R. Cozens was to make an evocative watercolour of this composition, without figures, presumably worked up from his father's unfinished wash sketch; John Robert's version is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Munro 1994, p.51).

An important sketchbook also used by Alexander Cozens in Italy was published by Paul Opp? in 1928 (now Yale Center for British Art). As well as landscape and figure studies, the sketchbook contains written notes which reveal that whilst in Rome Cozens worked in the studio of the French landscape painter Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), with whom Richard Wilson was to become acquainted in the 1750s. Other notes by Cozens in the sketchbook are detailed, analytical schemes for sketching from nature, revealing a love of categorisation that would bear fruit in his later treatises on landscape.

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.66 no.15, reproduced in colour p.67