Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


20 Mountainous Landscape with Cypresses c.1770-80

Grey and black washes on laid paper prepared with either an oil or a mastic ground 44.8 x 57 (17 5/8 x 22 1/2)


In A New Method for Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1786) Cozens illustrates sixteen 'blots' (engraved in aquatint, probably by himself) of various kinds of composition of landscape, as well as different sort of skies (see nos.18 and 19). These were followed by seven further plates, including two more 'blots' and five worked-up landscapes based on them (repr. Wilton 1980, pls.24-5), the latter five engraved in a mixture of aquatint and mezzotint by William Pether (1731-c.1816), the printmaker and portrait miniaturist under whom Henry Edridge (no.74) later trained. This, one of the largest and most elaborate of all Cozens's drawings, is similar to these finished landscapes illustrated in A New Method, and like them was probably worked up from a blot.

In Rules IV and V of A New Method Cozens explains how to make and then finish a sketch worked up from a blot. A sheet of tracing paper was first attached onto the selected blot, and the outlines of any figures or animals which were to be introduced were added onto the sheet in pencil. A blot survives by Alexander Cozens and by his son John Robert for a composition of Hannibal Passing the Alps which still has its sheet of tracing paper attached (fig.14). It shows some preliminary pencil and pen work defining a few fir trees and mountain contours, as well as being squared up for enlargement - small blots would, presumably, often have needed translating into larger drawings like Mountainous Landscape with Cypresses, but this is something Cozens fails to discuss in A New Method. The Hannibal blot is also of special interest in having been made on a sheet of wrinkled paper, for at one stage in A New Method Cozens recommends the option of crumpling the paper before a blot was started in order to produce a greater variety of accidental shapes; being done before any ink was applied, the crumpling of the paper did not affect the general design, as is sometimes mistakenly thought - a misconception Opp? was at pains to correct (1952, pp.65-6).

After the pencil had been added (if at all), the sketch itself was started and was to be executed entirely with the brush in diluted drawing ink (a recipe for which Cozens gives in Rule I). Once the sketch was made, more specific details might be introduced, such as water, rocks, or trees. Cozens's own craggy peaks are reminiscent of the other-worldly rocks in the fantastic landscapes of fifteenth-century Flemish artists such as Pieter Breughel or Paul Bril (Wilton 1980, p.9), though his trees, like the cypresses here, tend to be more recognisable species, perhaps corresponding to examples published in his treatise The Shape, Skeleton and Foliage of Thirty-two Species of Trees (1771). The artist was then to 'adapt a sky proper to the landscape' from the selection offered in A New Method, and finally the rest of the composition was to be worked up to an appropriate degree of finish, paying particular attention to aerial perspective. In this example, as Opp? writes, 'Hills enclose the plain and an arm of the sea into which the river flows. Here every detail is worked out, curve balancing curve, shadow creating and contrasting with light, and the pattern receding into space with a suggestion of infinity' (1952, p.91).

Cozens's systems are often highly complex and technical, and were certainly not for the faint hearted; as Opp? says of the closing sections of A New Method, 'no one who reads it can ever think again of Cozens' methods as having been devised for the entertainment of fashionable idlers at Bath or elsewhere' (1952, p.69). His systems exerted an important influence on a number of contemporary and later artists, including Joseph Wright of Derby (no.29) and William Gilpin (1724-1804), but especially on Cozens's own son, John Robert Cozens (nos.59-61), as well as on John Constable (no.82).

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.76 no.20, reproduced in colour p.77