In 1782, the English painter John Robert Cozens (1752-1797) had been back barely three years from an extended visit to Italy when he set off across the Alps once again.
He was invited to join the Grand Tour entourage of the 22-year-old art collector William Beckford (1760-1844), who at the age of 10 had inherited a fortune of £1 million, a grand country estate and several Jamaican sugar plantations.
The pair had been introduced by Cozens’s father, Alexander, a celebrated artist in his own right who had given Beckford private lessons after working as the drawing master at Eton.
The younger Cozens won Beckford over with the landscapes and views of classical ruins he had made on his previous trip to Italy, between 1776 and 1779, with the aristocrat Richard Payne Knight.
Beckford, who was notoriously eccentric and demanding — dubbed ‘the richest commoner in England’ by the press — employed Cozens as his travelling draughtsman.
In May 1782, the party set off. Cozens took several sketchbooks with him and began drawing in earnest as they reached the ‘entrance to Tyrol’, as he wrote next to his first sketch.
After a year spent travelling through Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples, he had filled at least seven sketchbooks — now housed at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery — with more than 200 drawings, ranging from rural convents and villas to cityscapes and a smoking Mount Vesuvius.
From these drawings, Beckford handpicked nearly 100 to be recreated as watercolours.
‘The drawings are often slight — a delicate pencil outline of the character of a rock or foliage,’ says Annabel Kishor, a specialist in the British Drawings and Watercolours department at Christie’s in London. ‘But the watercolours are full of incredibly rich, deep blues and stormy blacks.
‘They’re much more intense than anything Cozens had painted on his previous tour with Knight — perhaps reflecting the temperament of his new patron — or would ever paint again.’
The majority of the watercolours were painted back in England, after Cozens was freed from what he described as Beckford’s ‘shackles of fantastic folly and caprice’.
Others — such as the view of the gardens of the ancient Villa Negroni in Rome, which is is being offered in London on 6 July by the descendants of the art dealer C. Morland Agnew — were probably created in the months after the pair parted ways in Naples.
‘This painting has a wonderfully unpredictable composition,’ says Kishor. ‘In front you have these huge, gloomy cypresses and pines, while behind, dark storm clouds gather against a setting sun. It has an incredible brooding quality.’
After returning to England, Beckford exiled himself at his new Gothic country estate, Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, described by the critic William Hazlitt as ‘a desert of magnificence, in a glittering waste of laborious idleness’.
It was there that he wrote the first English Oriental-Gothic horror novel, Vathek (1786).
The economic depression of 1815-16 forced him to sell the contents of his home in London, and five years later he consigned Fonthill Abbey and its contents to Christie’s.
Christie’s printed more than 70,000 copies of the catalogue, but the impulsive Beckford pulled the plug and sold the majority to a gunpowder merchant named John Farquhar for £330,000 — around £30 million in today’s money.
‘In 2010 one of the paintings from Cozens’ Beckford trip sold for £2.4 million, obliterating the record price for any 18th-century British watercolour’ — specialist Annabel Kishor
By contrast, the melancholic Cozens lived in relative obscurity back in London.
In 1793, aged 42, he suffered a nervous breakdown ‘paralytic to a degree that incapacitated him’ and spent the last three years of his life under the care of Dr Thomas Monro, chief physician at London’s Bethlehem Royal Hospital, better known as Bedlam.
Monro, also an art collector, displayed Cozens’s works at his Westminster home, where they were copied by a young J.M.W. Turner.
‘Cozens was one of the reasons Turner loved landscapes,’ says Kishor, ‘and Constable called him “the greatest genius that ever touched watercolour”.
‘In 2010, one of the paintings from his Beckford trip — which are particularly sought-after for their poetic atmosphere — sold for £2.4 million at auction, obliterating the record price for any 18th-century British watercolour.’
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As for the other 90-plus watercolours from Cozens’s Beckford commission, the majority passed into important private collections before being donated to museums, including the Victoria and Albert and Tate in London, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
‘Because of this, they very rarely appear on the market,’ says Kishor. ‘But when they do, it’s a great moment — and this is easily the best I’ve seen in terms of quality for many years.’