Cozens, John Robert (DNB00)

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COZENS, JOHN ROBERT (1752–1799), landscape-painter in water-colour, was the son of Alexander Cozens [q. v.] He was also probably his father's pupil, and he began to draw early, as Leslie mentions ‘a very small pen-drawing of three figures on which is written “Done by J. Cozens, 1761, when nine years old.”’ Little is known about his life. He began to exhibit in 1767 at the Incorporated Society of British Artists, in Spring Gardens, and went to Switzerland in 1776 with Mr. R. P. Knight, where he made a number (fifty-four) of water-colour drawings, afterwards in the Townley collection, and now in the possession of the Hon. R. Allanson-Winn. In this year he sent from Italy his solitary contribution to the exhibitions of the Royal Academy, called ‘A Landscape, with Hannibal, in his March over the Alps, showing his army the fertile plains of Italy,’ a picture said to have been in oil colours, and so fine that Turner spoke of it as a work from which he learned more than anything he had seen before. After this he was in Italy with Mr. William Beckford [q. v.], where he executed for that gentleman a large number of water-colour drawings. He returned to England in 1783 and became deranged in 1794. Attended by Dr. Munro, and supported by Sir George Beaumont, he remained insane till his death in 1799. (There is some doubt about this date. Constable said 1796, other authorities 1799, but a correspondent of ‘Notes and Queries,’ 3rd series, xi. 294, had reason for believing he was alive after 1799.)

The drawings he made for Mr. Beckford were sold at Christie's. Ninety-two of them were sold in 1805, and four a few years before, and realised over 500l. They included views in the Tyrol, at Padua, Pæstum, Verona, Venice, Rome, Naples, and their neighbourhoods, showing that his travels in Italy were extensive. His drawings in the South Kensington Museum show that he visited Sicily and Elba. Leslie says he saw some noble drawings by him from Windsor Park, and he probably made many others in England, but it is on his Italian drawings that his fame rests. He was the first water-colour painter who sketched in Italy and the Alps, and he attained a skill in the rendering of atmosphere which had never been attained by any previous painter in water-colour. His drawings are little more than tinted monochromes, but they are delightful in tone, and his colour, though slight, is harmonious and suggestive. No one before had approached so near to nature with such slender materials, and in drawing and composition he was a master. It was, however, the tender, poetical sentiment which he managed to infuse into his drawings, his union of fidelity and fine style, his ‘solemnity and sweetness,’ his expression of the ‘silent eloquence of nature,’ his sympathy with his subject, whether mountain or plain, modern city or ruined temple, waterfall or leafy glade, his bold but gentle ‘effects’ of light and atmosphere, which mark him as one of the most original and imaginative of landscape-painters, and the greatest of all the precursors of Turner and Girtin in the English school of water-colour. These two artists studied his drawings at Dr. Munro's and Mr. Henderson's in the Adelphi, and a great number of Turner's copies of them are in existence, which testify to the large share they had in the education of his genius.

‘Cozens,’ said Constable, ‘is all poetry,’ and he went so far as to pronounce him ‘the greatest genius that ever touched landscape.’ Leslie says: ‘So modest and unobtrusive are the beauties of his drawings, that you might pass them without notice, for the painter himself never says “Look at this or that,” he trusts implicitly to your own taste and feeling; and his works are full of half-concealed beauties, such as nature herself shows but coyly, and these are often the most fleeting appearances of light.’

Mr. Henderson's son left a fine collection of drawings by Cozens to the British Museum; there are also several at South Kensington. Cozens executed two slight etchings.

[Leslie's Handbook; Redgrave's Century of Painting; Redgrave's Dict.; Graves's Dict.; Seguier's Dict.; Edwards's Anecdotes; Palgrave's Handbook to International Exhibition of 1862.]

C. M.