Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


61 The Cloud ?c.1785

Watercolour over pencil on laid paper 35 x 39 (13 3/4 x 15 3/8)
Inscribed verso in pen and brown ink 'Cozens' and in pencil 'Cozens sky'


Most of John Robert Cozens's mature watercolours take topography as their starting-point, that is to say, they usually depict views of actual places, especially sites sketched on travels abroad (see no.60). His preferred subject is the broad vista or sweeping plain where topographical features tend to be relegated to the far distance or subsumed within the overall design - vehicles for the expression of light and atmosphere which are in fact the true theme of his landscapes. As Laurence Binyon pointed out, skies always play an integral part in the design of Cozens's watercolours, as well as contributing to their mood, at one moment perhaps 'infinitely luminous', at another 'charged with menace and oppressive cloud' (1944, p.47).

This watercolour is unusual for Cozens in being almost purely a sky study, divorced from any identifiable topographical context. Paul Opp? wrote how the presentation of a long low hillside with its line broken by a single tower was reminiscent of his father's coast scenes as well as the latter's 'drawing of the great cloud [no.17] which perhaps he had actually in mind' (1952, p.154). It is, indeed, possible that Cozens was thinking of one of Alexander's sky studies when he made this watercolour, for it is clear that he took an active interest in his father's work well into his mature career. In 1776, for example, having found a batch of Alexander's Italian drawings in Florence (which the latter had lost on his return journey to England in 1748), John Robert then used one or two of them, including Alexander's original sketch for no.15, as the basis for watercolours of his own. A possible model in the case of this sky study may, as Opp? pointed out, have been The Cloud itself (no.17), or one of the oil studies Alexander made in connection with The Various Species of Composition of Landscape, in Nature (see no.16). It might even have been adapted from one of the sky studies Alexander engraved for his treatise, A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1786), such as pl.no.20 which it broadly resembles (repr. Wilton 1980, pl.21). Whatever the exact source, John Robert's approach is subtler and less schematic than his father's, and his skies in general are more concerned with atmosphere, space and light.

By 1794 Cozens was suffering from an incurable mental illness, and his final years were spent in the care of the physician and amateur artist Thomas Monro (1759-1833). In 1795 Sir George Beaumont and others organised a fund to support Cozens's family, to which the artist's former patron Payne Knight contributed, though Beckford did not - soon afterwards he was to dismiss Cozens as 'an ungrateful scoundrel' (Farington, Diary, 17 June 1797, vol.3, p.855). Shortly before Cozens's death, Monro established an informal 'academy' at his house in Adelphi Terrace in the Strand in London, inviting promising young artists to come and sketch in the evenings, and especially to make copies of watercolours by Cozens (chiefly the Italian and Alpine subjects; see no.60). In this way Cozens's evocative and expressive approach to landscape painting was absorbed by artists of the next generation, in particular by the young Thomas Girtin and J.M.W. Turner (nos.77 and 78).

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.158 no.61, reproduced in colour p.159