Alexander Cozens (1717-1786)
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Alexander Cozens (1717-1786)

A bay at dusk

Alexander Cozens (1717-1786)
A bay at dusk
oil on canvas
26 x 35¾ in. (66 x 90.8 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 8 November 1995, lot 92 (sold £162,100).
with Leger Galleries, London, 1996, from whom purchased by the present owner.
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Lot Essay

Cozens was born in Russia, the son of Richard Cozens (1674-1735), chief shipbuilder to Peter the Great, and Mary, daughter of Robert Davenport, also a shipbuilder to the Tsar. Spending his first years in the new capital of St. Petersburg, he was then educated in England from 1727, and by 1735 he is recorded as studying painting in London. Following his father's death, however, he returned for a time to Russia, where the tradition of atmospheric landscape painting was to influence his own inclination toward the genre.

In 1746, the artist sailed from St. Petersburg to Livorno, studying in Italy for the next two years. He was one of the earliest British artists to tour Rome, and in the only surviving sketchbook from this period, now with Yale University, he stated with some ambition that he intended to '...studdy the beauty of Form and ... immure myself in solitude and paint the Graces, act Truth and contemplate virtue'.

The sketchbook provides evidence that he studied with the foremost French landscape painter of the period, Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), who had a studio in Rome at the time. Cozens experimented widely with oils and ink while working en plein air, drawing classical ruins and their surrounding campagna, sharing Vernet's particular interest in capturing the lighting of landscape. He also annotated the sketchbook with notes on his artistic methods, nascent theories that would preoccupy him as an artist throughout his career.

The precise date of Cozens' return to England is unknown, but by 1748 he had painted a view of Blenheim Palace seen from the park. Although he would continue to paint specific British topography, such as views of Matlock, Derbyshire, he favoured imaginary landscape compositions such as the present work. This view of a bay at dusk, with its startling colouring and dramatic skies, is an exquisite and rare example of Cozens' early artistic romanticism. As a capriccio view of an Italiante landscape, it is likely that it was painted following his sojourn in Italy.

Cozens began to establish a reputation for himself as a drawing-master and theorist following an appointment in 1750 at Christ's Hospital, a London charity school where he trained seamen in basic draughtsmanship, later publishing an essay in 1759 to 'Facilitate the Inventing of Landskips, intended for Students in the Art'. With some audacity, he noted that his method of inventing landscape compositions from tracing the shapes of ink-blots improved upon that of Leonardo da Vinci, who had recommended looking at cracks in walls and patterns in stones for inspiration. Cozens' treatise reached a wide audience of artists including Joseph Wright of Derby, and perhaps also Thomas Gainsborough, who may also have seen two small landscape oils by Cozens belonging to his friend, William Hoare of Bath.

Over the next two decades Cozens took rooms at Eton to provide drawing lessons for its students, but also taught privately. Many of his pupils can be ascertained from the list of subscribers to his publication The Principals of Beauty in 1778. They included the collector George Beaumont, the children of Francis Greville, 1st Earl of Warwick, the Grimston family and their acquaintances around York, as well as Sir James Grant and his circle in Scotland, and the children of King George III.

Cozens vociferously promoted the genre of landscape painting in British art, expounding in various papers and in paintings themselves his system for inventing 'moral landscapes', two examples of which are in British public collections, Before a Storm (Tate Britain) and Setting Sun (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester). His belief was that 'the species of composition could be used with certain objects, including trees, and with certain circumstances of sky or weather, to produce a landscape which evoked specific emotions, such as grandeur or simplicity, even freedom and liberty, and which might be employed for moral improvement' (Dr Kim Sloan, Dictionary of National Biography). This is surely no more evident than in the present picture, where the magnificently rendered sky at dusk against the tranquility of its bay suggest the powerful visual possibilities of a landscape. The distinctive cloud formations are painted to a 'system' such as those advocated by Cozens in his publications, patterns to capture the effect of hidden crepuscular sunlight.

Cozens died at his home on Leicester Street on 23 April, 1786, and was buried in St James's, Piccadilly, London, on 30 April 1786. His estate was administered by his son and daughter, who sold his remaining works at Christie's on 31 March, 1787 (149 lots). Although twenty-one of his oils were included in the sale, and another ninety, finished and unfinished, were sold at his son J.R.Cozens' studio sale at Greenwood's in 1794, very few are known today.

As a drawing master, the majority of Cozens' work was executed on paper. His oils were primarily painted to further his artistic reputation and expound his theories through exposure in the public exhibitions of the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy. This picture, of what might be considered exhibition size, is closest in scale to Cozens' two views of Matlock, Derbyshire, dated 1756 (loc. cit., Private Collection, U.K.). Smaller oils are in the collections of the Yale Center for British Art, the Paul Mellon Collection, the Stanford Museum of Art, California, and Tate Britain, London.

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