Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


16 Rocky Bay Scene ?c.1759-65

Oil on laid paper 16 x 18.7 (6 1/4 x 7 3/8)


On his return from Italy (see no.15), Cozens became deeply involved in teaching drawing. From 1750 to 1754 he held the post of drawing master at Christ's Hospital, a London charity school. Then around 1763 he began teaching at Eton College near Windsor, his most famous pupil there being Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827), who later took lessons from Malchair (no.24) and subsequently became a famous connoisseur and collector. During the 1750s and 1760s Cozens began to take private pupils as well, and it seems most likely that his famous method of composing imaginary landscapes by means of ink blots evolved directly out of his teaching of amateurs. He first published the idea in 1759, in a short illustrated Essay to Facilitate the Inventing of Landskips, Intended for Students in the Art, though with rather rudimentary explanations (it was not until A New Method of 1786 that he provided a full set of instructions). Between 1760 and 1781 Cozens was also exhibiting his work, both oil paintings and monochrome drawings, at the Society of Arts, the Free Society and the Royal Academy.

Cozens would have learned how to use oils in Vernet's studio in Rome (see no.15), and in later years he is known to have shown an interest in the technical methods of oil painting. In 1768 the sporting artist Sawrey Gilpin (1733-1807) managed to obtain Cozens's 'secret' 'method of painting with tacky colours', sending a detailed description in a letter to his father that year (Sloan 1986, pp.164-5). Five years later the painter Ozias Humphry (1742-1810) wrote in his notebooks three recipes for varnishes which had been communicated to him by Cozens, as well as a light painting-oil containing finely powdered glass to secure quick drying which Cozens had probably learned in Italy (Oppé 1952, pp.82-3; all four recipes are given in Sloan 1986, p.166). Cozens seems to have been a fairly prolific painter in oils: as well as the seventeen or so examples he exhibited during his lifetime, twenty-one were included in the sale of his effects at Christie's after his death; and ninety were included in his son's sale at Greenwoods in 1794 (Sloan 1986, p.82), the majority of these probably by Alexander since John Robert rarely painted in oil. However, only twelve examples of Alexander's work in oil are known today.

Of these twelve four are in the Oppé collection, from an album of Cozens's drawings formerly belonging to William Mackworth Praed (1756-1835), one of the artist's pupils (see under no.17) [T08043, T08044, T08045 and T08046]. All are small coastal scenes at twilight or moonlight, and this example was regarded by Oppé as one of the most 'adventurous': 'the moon irradiates the clouds which hide it, and its light throws the more distant headlands and sea into shimmering blue, the nearer rocks and their reflections into deepest shade. With the simplest construction and the least possible detail the subtle play of light is the dominant feature' (Oppé 1952, pp.83-4). A group of five other small oils by Cozens is known which relates to an important unfinished treatise of his mid-career, The Various Species of Landscape, and it is possible that they were originally executed to publicise that project - in an undated letter to the Bath portrait painter William Hoare Cozens writes of his intention to paint small oils for just such a purpose (Leger 1996, pp.20-1; the letter is published in Oppé 1928, A, p.91). These four examples in the Oppé collection could similarly relate to another (earlier) treatise, or they may have been painted on commission - a different, undated letter to Hoare seems to imply that Cozens may sometimes have painted small oils for private clients (Oppé 1928, D, pp.92-3). Rocky Bay Scene itself is compositionally similar to a much larger and more elaborate exhibition oil by Cozens, A Bay at Dawn, which only recently turned up on the art market (Leger 1996, pp.16-23). His remaining two oils are views of Matlock dated 1756 (repr. Sloan 1986, p.38).

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.68 no.16, reproduced in colour p.69