Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


60 View from Isola Borromea, Lago Maggiore c.1783

Watercolour over pencil on laid paper 26.4 x 38.3 (10 3/8 x 15 1/8)
Inscribed verso in pen and brown ink 'Lago Maggiore, Lombardy'


It is John Robert Cozens who is usually credited with achieving the vital transition from topographical viewmaking to romantic watercolour painting in Britain in the late eighteenth century. From his father's highly expressive but imaginary views John Robert absorbed a special understanding of the emotive powers of landscape. He harnessed this to actual views observed from nature, producing watercolours of an evocative power which elicited from John Constable another of his famous remarks about Cozens, that he was 'all poetry' (letter to John Fisher, 1821, Beckett 1968, p.72). Henry Fuseli called Cozens's watercolours 'creations of an enchanted eye', drawn with an 'enchanted hand' (quoted Sloan 1996, p.99).

Cozens's early drawings are usually executed in monochrome washes, influenced no doubt by his father's work (see no.59). Even the sequence of fifty-seven Alpine views John Robert made for the connoisseur and collector Richard Payne Knight (1751-1824), with whom he travelled through Switzerland to Italy in 1776, are essentially 'tinted' drawings with emphatic pen outlines (an example is in the Opp? collection, T08773). It was only towards the end of Cozens's first stay in Italy (he remained there until 1779) that he began to use colour, though his palette usually remains restricted to a range of soft blues, greens and grey; and he also began to define form using small touches of the brush, thus painting rather than drawing in watercolour. He developed a sure understanding of tone, and became a master of atmospheric recession.

This watercolour is one of a large series of drawings commissioned from Cozens by William Beckford, the temperamental young author and millionaire who was a friend and patron of his father, Alexander. John Robert had started making watercolours of Italian subjects for Beckford as early as 1780, and two years later he accompanied him on a journey to Italy, travelling through Germany and the Alps to Rome and Naples, and then returning to England in 1783 via the Italian Lakes and the Grande Chartreuse. During this, his second trip to the Continent, Cozens filled seven sketchbooks (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) with small pencil and grey wash studies of sites observed during his travels, all carefully annotated with details of the locations and often dates as well, and it was from these that he later worked up more elaborate versions in colour. For example, this watercolour of Lake Maggiore seen from 'Isola Borromea' (Isola Bella), is based on a study he made on the second page of the seventh sketchbook (Sotheby's 1973, p.61 and repr.). The study, like many of the others in the sketchbooks, is squared for transfer onto a second sheet.

Beckford eventually came to own an important collection of ninety-four Italian subjects by Cozens, though in 1805, some years after the artist's death, he sold all of them at auction, probably because by that date he found them old-fashioned (Stainton 1985, p.37). His collection included some of the most colourful (and thus least characteristic) of all Cozens's work (Wilton 1980, p.12). This one, with its sun setting in an orange and red haze behind rich blue hills reflected in the lake, reminded Paul Opp? of the famous watercolour of the Blue Rigi which J.M.W. Turner was to paint nearly sixty years later (1952, p.145; Turner's watercolour is reproduced in Wilton 1979B, p.237). In fact, a copy of this composition was made in the 1790s by an artist - probably Turner himself - working in the circle of Dr Thomas Monro (see under no.61), although the copy was probably made from Cozens's original sketchbook page or from a tracing rather than from the watercolour itself (Wilton 1980, p.62). There is also a slight pencil copy made after this subject by Cozens's father, Alexander, in the Opp? collection (T08812). John Robert's original watercolour was owned at one stage by the writer on art Samuel Redgrave (1802-1876).

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.156 no.60, reproduced in colour p.157