Unusually for his time, in this manual he encouraged his pupils to compose their own imaginary drawings in ink and watercolour. Then, landscape drawing with watercolour was exclusively topographical - a form of ordnance reportage, concerned with scrupulous copying from nature. Detailed panoramas, or ‘prospects’, were represented without imagination, as vast expanses of land, uninterrupted by compositional devices that might serve to frame the vista as a subject of high art. Rather, ‘poetic’ landscapes rendered from the imagination or inspired by history were the preserve of oil painters.
Cozens however broke with convention to devise the radical ‘blot’ technique with which his pupils could liberate their imaginations and dream up their own Arcadian views.
The blot drawings represented here show the invention of an imaginary landscape in two stages. In the first, the artist has fixed a subject in his mind, conceiving an assemblage of crudely inscribed shapes, rapidly dabbed on the paper with a brush and fingertips. From these marks, compositional ideas were invoked, from which a more tangible sketch could be developed. In the second drawing we see that from the initial blot design a landscape has been realised in varying monochromatic tones.
In this view, Cozens sought to stir the spectator’s emotions by contrasting the tranquillity of the lake with the imposing mountains and dark thunderous clouds. While in topographical views atmospheric effects were typically omitted, Cozens considered these “circumstances” to be the chief “organ of sentiment” for conveying notions of the Sublime. Cozens’ concern to render assemblages instantaneously, through subconscious thought, in some ways parallels the free association and automatism evident in the works of Surrealist writers and painters, and later Abstract Expressionist artists.
Julia Beaumont-Jones is Collection Registrar, Prints and Drawings at Tate Britain.