Alexander Cozens

Before Storm


Not on display

Alexander Cozens 1717–1786
Oil paint on paper
Support: 241 × 314 mm
image: 241 × 314 mm
frame: 458 × 521 × 21 mm
Purchased 1975

Display caption

Cozens is chiefly remembered for his various systems for the invention of landscape composition. His own landscapes were usually arranged according to fixed principles of design, to convey the moods and associations he connected with particular natural forms or effects. This painting was not a direct study from nature, and was intended to indicate a typical rather than a fleeting effect. Though far from spontaneous, Cozens's compositions did much to stimulate the Romantics to more direct study of the sky. Constable made various copies of Cozens's cloud renderings, and followed him in his appreciation of the sky as a prime 'organ of sentiment'.

Gallery label, August 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

T01949 Before Storm c.1770

Inscribed 'Before Storm' on verso of mount in pencil lower left Oil on paper, 9 ½ x l2 3/8 (24.1 x 34), on wash-line mount Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1 ~75

Coil: ...; anon. sale, Christie's 4 March 1975 (13, repr. pl.2), bt. Agnew for the Tate Gallery

This is one of a group of three previously unrecorded paintings by Cozens sold at Christie's on 4 March 1975 (lot 14 was bought by Baskett & Day for the Mellon Collection; lot 15, also bought by Baskett & Day, is now in a private collection). Each of the three is in oils on Whatman paper, and is of similar size; and each is laid down on a wash-line mount inscribed verso by the artist. T01949 is inscribed 'Before Storm'; the works sold as lots 14 and 15 are inscribed respectively 'Close of the Day' and 'Rising Sun'.

The three works appear to have been part of a series of at least twenty (perhaps twenty-six) studies which Cozens, whom William Beckford described as 'almost as full of Systems as the Universe', projected as a system for classifying circumstances affecting the appearance of landscape. This system was perhaps not fully elaborated, and was never published. The only clue to it Cozens himself left occurs in a set of rudimentary notes and sketches for an unpublished system of 'Principles of Landskip' (in the collection of the British Museum, 1888-1-16-9): one section of this is entitled 'Circumstances of Landskip', subdivided into '4 Accidents 4 Seasons 8 Characters'.

Though Cozens did not publish this system, there is some evidence that he ex- pounded it to his pupils at Eton, where he was drawing-master from c.1763 to at least 1774. Sir George Beaumont, one of his pupils there, evidently preserved notes of such a system and, nearly forty years after Cozens's death, discussed them with his younger friend John Constable, his guest at Coleorton in 1823. Among notes which Constable made during that visit is a transcript of 26 numbered phrases headed 'Circumstances': the fullest evidence we have of Cozens's un- published system, and incidental evidence of its probable influence on Constable and later English landscape artists. (Constable's transcript is bound in facing p.150 in an extra-illustrated copy ofC. R. Leslie's Life of Constable in the Mellon Collection: see Constable, Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1976, pp.135-6.) The first ten 'Circumstances' are times of the day: 'Dawn', 'before Sun rising', 'Sun rising', forenoon, noon, afternoon, sunset, 'after sunset', 'close of day' and 'Night'. These are followed by the four seasons. Numbers 15 to 23 might best be described, in the phrase from Cozens's own fragmentary 'Principles of Landskip' (op. cit.) as 'Accidents': fog or mist, wind, rain, 'after rain', and flood, then (in a group of three) 'before storm' (no.20), 'a Storm' (no.21) and 'after a Storm' (no.22), followed by fire. The last three are 'mixture of the Sky or clouds with the Landscape', 'principal light in the sky' and 'principal light in the Landscape'.

The phrases inscribed on the three works which reappeared at Christie's on 4 March 1975 tally with 'Circumstances' in Constable's transcript- 'Rising Sun' (lot 15) with no.3 on that list, 'Close of Day' (lot 14) with no.9 and 'Before Storm' (lot 13, now T01949) with no.20. This suggests that Cozens painted these three as part of a series illustrating some or all of the 26 'Circumstances' in oils. Another link with the system of 'Circumstances' is provided by the fact that T01949 is directly related to a pencil and brown wash drawing inscribed by Cozens with the number '20' ('before storm' on Constable's transcript'). The drawing in question, hitherto known as 'Study of Sky no.4 with Landscape' (8ix 12t, now coil. D.L. T. Oppe, exh. Alexander Cozens, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield and Tate Gallery, 1946, 64, pl.14), should now perhaps be identified with 'A Landshape before storm: in chiaro-oscuro' exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1770 (28, with' A Landshape after storm' as no.29). Both the oils and the drawing are essentially the same composition, thus providing a rare example of Cozens treating the same subject in the medium of pencil and wash and (? subsequently) in oils.

In the drawing, the conformation of the upper reaches of a line of hills is outlined in pencil in the foreground; above them roll rounded clouds, dark-brown and laden with storm on the right; irregular patches of brighter sky show through, gradually lightening towards the left, these effects being achieved by the use of subtly graduated brown washes. In the oil painting, the line of the hilltops corresponds closely though not precisely with their pencil outline in the drawing; but now the hills have gained not only colour but also individual substance, light and shade. The disposition of the clouds and the irregular glimpses of sky correspond closely to those in the drawing, which is dramatic enough: but in the oil, the livid light which plays over landscape before a storm breaks, now exposing the hills' bare slopes, now intensifying their wooded patches, is almost eerily caught. The viewpoint is crucial to the composition: Cozens is depicting not a view but a phenomenon, the incidence of storm, and so the spectator is in the heights where clouds and hilltops meet.

Until the reappearance of the group of three at Christie's in 1975, only six oil paintings by Cozens were recorded as extant: two larger landscapes of Matlock (coli. H. G. Balfour), one of which, dated 1756, was exhibited at the Tate Gallery, Landscape in Britain, 1973 (83), and four small landscapes described by A. P. Oppe, Alexander and John Robert Cozens, 1952, pp.83-4 (now coli. D. L. T. Oppe, two lent to the same exhibition, 84 and 85). Though the smaller sizes of the latter four make it unlikely that they were part of the same series as the rediscovered three, they too evidently illustrated 'Circumstances' in landscape. Oppe describes one as depicting 'an effect of torrid sunset' (? 'setting sun', circumstance no.7), another as 'a crescent moon... above clouds in a sky which is faintly lit by a depar- ted sun' (? 'after sunset', no.8, or another design for 'close of day', no.9), a third as moonlight riven by clouds over a coastal scene (? 'Night', no.lO) and a fourtH as 'a rainstorm... driving across a clouded sky' (? 'Rain', no.17).

Some of the works exhibited by Cozens between 1760 and 1781, and not par- ticularised as 'drawings', 'in brown' or 'in chiar-oscuro', may well have been in oils. Similarly, in the sale of 'Finished and Unfinished Drawings, Sketches and some Pictures' by Cozens at Christie's 31 March 1787, the phrase 'some Pictures' may distinguish oil paintings from the drawings and sketches, which are very briefly described as ~outlines', 'in Indian ink', 'in brown' or 'slight drawings': if so, the phrase refers to the 21 works at the end of the sale. Lot 138 is positively described as 'A landscape in oil colours, large', lots 139 and 140 are each 'a pair ditto', and if lots 141-148 (respectively described as two landscapes~'a landscape and sea view, two landscapes and four pairs 'ditto') are also assumed to be oils, then 21 oil paintings were in this sale (not 20, as noted by~Oppe, op. cit., p.83).

Cozens's interest in the technical methods of oil painting is discussed by Oppe (op. cit., pp.82-3). He favoured a light painting-oil containing finely powdered glass which would secure quick drying (the recipe was noted by Ozias Humphry), It sounds particularly suitable for use on paper and may be the medium the artist employed in T01949.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978


You might like

In the shop