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John Robert Cozens
Nationality: 
english
Gender: 
Male
Birth Date: 
1752
Birth Place: 
London
Death Date: 
1797
Death Place: 
London
A draftsman, printmaker and painter, the landscapes in watercolor by John Robert Cozens influenced several generations of British landscape painters. Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) studied and copied his works in their early years, and learned from him the full range of watercolor as an expressive medium. Cozens was probably born in London in 1752, the son of Alexander Cozens (1717-1786), an artist known for his landscape drawings depicting imaginary scenes and an active art instructor. John Robert learned his craft from his father, and first showed his work at the 1767 exhibition of London’s Society of Artists, continuing at the Society’s annual exhibitions until 1771. An album of Cozens’s drawings in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, includes landscape sketches depicting locations around London made from 1768 until 1772. He apparently moved to Bath with an uncle in 1772, and the following year published “Eight Views of Bath,” hand-colored etchings. Cozens exhibited a painting, “A Landscape, with Hannibal in his March Over the Alps, Showing to his Army the Fertile Plains of Italy,” at the Royal Academy in 1776, eliciting much praise. Turner was quoted by a contemporary as saying that he learned a great deal from the painting, and it probably inspired Turner’s “Hanibal Crossing the Alps” (1812, London: Tate Britain). However, Cozens’s painting (last seen in an 1876 sale) did not win him membership in the Royal Academy. Cozens’s reputation rests largely on watercolors and drawings inspired by his two long trips to the Alps and Italy, resulting in depictions of the French and Swiss Alps, Rome, the Campagna, and Naples and the surrounding area. His first trip began in August 1776 when he accompanied the scholar and collector Richard Payne Knight (1751-1824) to Switzerland, where Cozens created 57 drawings recording spectacular Alpine scenes, often in locations rarely visited by tourists. They proceeded on to Pisa, Florence and then to Rome. Payne Knight went on to Naples and Sicily while Cozens remained in generally in Rome. He took sketching tours of the surrounding countryside and visited Naples, often in the company of the English artist Thomas Jones (1742-1803). While in Italy, Cozens prepared finished watercolors for Payne Knight and for other English travelers. Cozens left Rome in April 1779, and after returning to England took up residency in Bath. He turned his drawings into finished watercolors for a variety of patrons, including the wealthy young collector William Beckford (1760-1844), an amateur artist who had studied with Cozens’s father Alexander. In 1782 Cozens was part of the large entourage that traveled with Beckford to Naples. Cozens recorded the trip and the years in Naples in seven sketchbooks that provided the inspiration for almost one hundred landscape watercolors commissioned by Beckford. Cozens caught malaria and spent a month recovering in Naples, and then made short trips around Naples to sketch. He went to Rome in December 1782, where he socialized with the Scottish artist Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Cozens’s return to England in 1783 took him through the Italian Lake district and the Alps, which provided him with the inspiration for some of his best landscapes. Jones met with him in London late that year, but then little is known about Cozens until 1789 when he published a set of fourteen soft-ground etchings with aquatint, “Delineations of the General Character, Ramifications and Foliage of Forest Trees.” Cozens hand-colored some of them with wash, one of which, “Palm,” is in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums. He continued to create finished watercolors based on his Italian trips, including one of his several views of Lake Nemi, south of Rome, from 1789, which is also in the Museums’ collection (B. & G. 143). His last dated work is from 1792, and by 1794 he had succumbed to mental illness and was in the care of Dr. Thomas Monro (1759-1833), a physician affiliated with the Bethlehem Hospital for the mentally ill. A sale of Cozens’s property was held in 1794. He was also supported by a subscription organized by his patrons Payne Knight and Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827) and others and assistance from the Royal Academy. Cozens died in December 1797 at one of Dr. Monro’s facilities in London. In his memoirs, John Constable (1776-1837) described Cozens as “the greatest genius that ever touched landscape.” (Rev. TNB 5/2015) Selected bibliography: Bell, C. F. and Thomas Girtin. “The Drawings and Sketches of John Robert Cozens: A Catalogue with an Historical Introduction,” The Walpole Society, vol. 23 (1934-35). Sloan, Kim. Alexander and John Robert Cozens: The Poetry of Landscape. Exhibition catalog. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, in association with the Art Gallery of Ontario, 1986. Wilton, Andrew, ed. The Art of Alexander and John Robert Cozens. Exhibition catalog. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 1980.