John Robert Cozens had two opportunities to travel over the Alps and visit Italy; once, in 1776-1779 in the entourage of Richard Payne Knight (1751-1824), and again in 1782-3 with the eccentric and spoiled William Beckford, 'England's wealthiest son' (1760-1844). Beckford was an established patron of Alexander Cozens, and his patronage of John Robert, Alexander's son, followed naturally from that. He had commissioned Italian views from him before they set out together in May 1782. 'He cannot make too many,' Beckford wrote to Alexander, 'Having seen Italy I value them more than ever if that be possible.'
The artist took several sketchbooks with him, and began drawing in earnest when they reached the 'entrance to the Tyrol', as he inscribed his first sketch. The books were to provide him with material for watercolours both during the tour and later in England. Not all have survived, but those that have are now in the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, having been sold by the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, Sotheby's, London, 29 November 1973. The seven sketchbooks were apparently found in the Charter Rooms of Hamilton Palace among the papers of William Beckford during the preparation for the Burlington Fine Art Club's 1922 exhibition of J.R. Cozens.
The sketches that Cozens made on his tour with Beckford are often slight – a mere pencil outline, nervously responding to the character of rock or foliage, always delicately expressive but understated. It was into the watercolours that he constructed on these slender foundations that he poured all the reserves of his pent up, melancholic nature. The choice of subjects in the series that he made for Beckford was probably decided by his patron when he showed Beckford his sketchbooks after the two men, who had separated in Naples, met again in Geneva on the return journey. Many of the finished watercolours were probably executed in England, although most, including the present sheet, are on an Italian paper, so some may have been painted once he returned to Rome, loosed from the shackles of Beckford’s ‘folly and caprice’.
There are nearly a hundred in the series, and they are the most intense and poetic of all Cozens' works, using rich deep blues and stormy blacks, a palette reflecting Beckford's temperament as much as the artist's: much given to brooding introspection and romantic fantasizing. The compositions are often wayward, ignoring the traditional rules of picturesque design and relying on unexpected emphases. Here, the stormy intensity of the gathering clouds is given greater power by the darkness of the gloomy cypresses shadowed by the umbrella pine. The sky over the distant Alban hills is suffused with the faint yellow glow left by the setting sun. It was described in the catalogue of Beckford’s sale as ‘A picturesque scene, tinted in a rich and brilliant tone’. Very few of the series remain in private collections, with most in museums across the world.
This sheet is one of two known watercolours relating to the Villa Negroni. The other, sold by Leger Galleries in 1975, has two related preparatory sketches in pencil, worked up with Indian ink, one dated in Cozens’ hand ‘Villa Negroni, Jan 27th, 1783’. Whilst there are no known preparatory drawings for the present sheet, it seems most likely that it has its basis in drawings from the same visit to the Villa Negroni.
Charles Sackville Bale (1791-1880) was a collector of art and objects whose sales at Christie's in 1881 ran for several weeks and covered categories from paintings and watercolours to Greek and Roman coins. His sale of watercolours included sixteen works by J.R. Cozens, of which ten were purchased by Agnew's.
Morland Agnew, grandson of Thomas, founder of the epnoymous firm of dealers, was not only a very distinguished dealer in paintings but also formed an outstanding private collection of British watercolours, sometimes buying directly for himself and sometimes taking over personally works of art bought for the gallery. The present drawing was a founding example of his his large collection of Cozens watercolours of the highest quality, one of three he bought from the gallery's stock after purchasing them in the Bale sale.
We are grateful to Kim Sloan for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.