Masters of Water-Colour Painting

John Robert Cozens, the son of Alexander Cozens, was the first artist at this period “to break away from the trammels of topography, and to raise landscape painting in water colours to a branch of fine art.” He travelled abroad and studied principally in Italy and Switzerland. The lake of Nemi, situated in the Campagna, some sixteen miles west of Rome, and reached by the famous Via Appia, has always been a favourite subject with both poets and artists. Near the north rim of the worn-out crater, in which the lake is situated, is the village of Nemi, surmounted by a fine old castle, which passed through the hands of many noble families. Pope, Byron, and others have sung the praises of the lake. Turner has left at least five drawings of it, one of which is engraved in Hakewell’s “Italy.” William Pars, Richard Wilson and other artists of the early landscape school also painted the scene. Cozens made many drawings of Nemi and the vicinity. Two are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and another is in the Whitworth Institute, Manchester. The painting (Plate X), belonging to Mr. R. W. Lloyd, shows the lake with Palazzo Cesarini on a height by its side, and the Campagna in the distance. It is a fine example of Cozens’ work treated in his poetic manner, and into which more colour than usual has been introduced. Cozens’ last visit to Italy was made in 1782 in company with the noted William Beckford, the author of “Vathek.” On his return he gradually lost his reason. It is pathetic to think such was the sad end of a man inspired with such artistic talents. As it has already been stated, he was the pioneer in exalting water-colour painting to a fine art. His footsteps were quickly followed by Girtin and Turner. The history of these two artists, how during their early struggles they were befriended by that art patron, Dr. Thomas Monro, a capable water-colour painter himself, and well qualified to give advice, is too well known to need repetition.

Girtin, during his short career, had no selfish ideas of keeping his knowledge of painting to himself. It was mainly due to his initiation that a club was started amongst a small body of young artists for the study of landscape painting. They met at each other’s houses in rotation. One of its prominent members was Sir Robert Ker Porter, a painter, traveller and author, who afterwards married a Russian princess. He was living, at the time, at 16, Great Newport Street, which had formerly been a residence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and subsequently that of Dr. Samuel Johnson. It was in this house that the first meeting of the club was held “for the purpose of establishing by practice a School of Historic Landscape, the subjects being designs from poetick passages.” Writing in The Somerset House Gazette, in 1823, W. H. Pyne, under the pseudonym of Ephraim Hardcastle, states “this artist (Girtin) prepared his drawings on the same principle which had hitherto been confined to painting in oil, namely, with local colour, and shadowing the same with the individual tint of its own shadow. Previous to the practice of Turner and Girtin, drawings were shadowed first entirely throughout, whatever their component parts—houses, castles, trees, mountains, fore-grounds, middle-grounds, and distances, all with black or grey, and these objects were afterwards stained or tinted, enriched and finished, as is now the custom to colour prints. It was this new practice, introduced by these distinguished artists, that acquired for designs in water colour upon paper the title of paintings: a designation which many works of the existing school decidedly merit, as we lately beheld in the Exhibition of the Painters in Water Colours, where pictures of this class were displayed in gorgeous frames, bearing out in effect against the mass of glittering gold as powerfully as pictures in oil.” Girtin had a partiality for painting in a low tone of colour and frequently on rough cartridge paper, which assisted in giving a largeness of manner to his work. The Landscape (Plate XI) is, however, rendered in a brighter key than his usual practice.