Search the Collections

David Cox
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Deeritend (Birmingham)
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
One of England’s leading landscape painters of the 19th century, David Cox is best known for his watercolors, but was also an accomplished painter in oils, an art instructor and the author of three successful drawing manuals. Born in Deritend, a suburb of Birmingham, in 1783, he was the son of a blacksmith. After showing a talent for drawing, Cox took drawing lessons from Joseph Barber (1757-1811), a drawing-master in Birmingham and then was apprenticed to Albert Feidler, a painter of miniatures. He worked there for about eighteen months before taking a job as a an assistant to a painter of theatrical scenery, probably in the summer of 1800. Cox advanced to becoming a scenery painter himself, and in 1804 went to London with the promise of work at a London theater. Although that position did not materialize, Cox found work for other theaters while setting out to become a painter in watercolors. He exhibited two works at the Royal Academy of Arts annual exhibition in 1805, and continued to exhibit at the Academy through 1808. During this time he studied with the painter John Varley (1778-1842). He married Mary Agg (1771-1845), the daughter of his landlady, in 1808, and began to teach drawing lessons, assisted by Varley who referred pupils to him. The next year he began exhibiting at the Associated Artists in Water Colours, showing ten works. Cox exhibited with the Associated Artists annually through 1812, the year he joined the more prestigious Society of Painters in Water Colours. He would show works in the Society’s exhibitions each year until his death, with the exception of the exhibitions in 1815 and 1817. Cox published his first drawing manual in 1811, “A Series of Progressive Lessons Intended to Elucidate the Art of Painting in Water Colours.” It was followed by “A Treatise on Landscape Painting and Effect in Water Colours (1813-14). Cox accepted a position as a drawing master at the Royal Military College, Farnham, in 1813, but soon resigned. The following year he found work teaching at Miss Croucher’s school for girls in Hereford, in western England near Wales, where he taught until 1819. He also took private pupils. Cox’s third drawing manual, “The Young Artist’s Companion” was published in 1819-1820. He began creating large-sized watercolors for exhibition. Cox traveled to London annually to view the spring art exhibitions, often took sketching trips in England and Wales during the summer months and in 1826 traveled to Belgium with his son and brother-in-law, extending the trip to other cities in the Low Countries. Cox moved his family back to London in 1827. He and his son traveled to northern France and Paris in 1829. His third and last trip to the Continent was in 1832, to Calais and the north-west coast of France, which provided material he used for years, such as his “Grey Day, Calais Pier,” in the Fine Arts Museums’ collection. Cox began experimenting with oils in the late 1830s, and in 1839 took lessons in oil painting from William James Müller (1812-1845), the young English painter. In 1841 Cox and his wife moved to Harborne, then a suburb outside of Birmingham. While continuing to paint and exhibit watercolors, he worked extensively in oils. Cox eventually created some 350 oil paintings, sometimes painting the same subject in both oils and watercolors. His oils were not well-received when exhibited in London, but found homes with Cox’s Birmingham patrons. Among his other travels, in 1844 Cox began making annual trips to the Betws-y-coed, a village in the mountains of North Wales, a landscape that provided endless subject matter for his art. His last visit there was in 1856. Cox suffered a stroke in 1853, which affected his memory and manual dexterity; scholars are uncertain how much art he created after the stroke. His work was shown in solo exhibitions in London in 1858 and 1859. Cox suffered from an attack of bronchitis and died in early June, 1859. (TNB 72015) Selected bibliography: Wilcox, Scott, ed. Sun, Wind and Rain: The Art of David Cox. Exhibition catalogue. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2008. Wildman, Stephen, ed. David Cox, 1783–1859. Exhibition catalog. Birmingham: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1983.