JOHN ROBERT COZENS
(1752 – 1797)
The Approach to Martigny, Rhone Valley, Valais
Col. P.L.M Wright
J. Leslie Wright
The Arts Council of Great Britain, The English Romantics, 1946
Royal Academy of Arts, Exhibition of The J.Leslie Wright Collection of Masters of British Watercolour, 1949
The artist suspends us above a ledge half way up a steep mountainside (rising up and out of the picture), allowing us to gaze upon a vast, misty valley enlivened by descending shafts of sunlight, subtly rendered. Contemporary Swiss artists, such as Ludwig Aberli, usually place us down in a valley amidst eye-catching activities, with the mountains kept at a safe distance’ (Louis Hawes, exhibition review, Turner Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 1988, p. 49). Here, Hawes neatly encapsulates both the content and the context of Cozens’s remarkable composition which in its sense of the infinite mirrors the sentiments expounded by Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise ‘A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.’ Burke’s sentiments such as ‘I am apt to imagine likewise, that height is less grand than depth; and that we are more struck at looking down from a precipice, than looking up at an object of equal height’ when discussing ‘Vastness’ struck a chord with John Robert Cozens who had imbued his father’s teachings on emotion and chance and order in landscape and by applying these emotional reactions to an interpretation of the physical realities of an observed landscape rather than the totally idealized world of his father’s drawings.
In spite of his short career, John Robert Cozens developed the theoretical exercises of his father into what Constable, when speaking of his work, characterized as ‘poetry’. In his hands, the raw material of topography was transformed into statements of emotional response which transcended view-making through his ability to translate the inherent drama and sublimity of the landscapes with which he was engaging. Although a number of artists had from the 1760s been making topographical views in watercolour, they were, even in the hands of a master such as Sandby, largely works of record: when looking at one of Cozens’s works one is always aware of the artist’s evocation of a sense of the place rather than the bare bones of the landscape.
During his active career which lasted from the early 1770s to about 1794 when he was debilitated by what appears to be depression his work was largely known to a group of wealthy connoisseurs and “Grand Tourists”, many of whom had been pupils of his father. It was largely through the activities of Dr Thomas Monro, the physician at Bethlem Hospital who had Cozens under his care, and the dispersal in 1805 of the wonderful series of watercolours which he had made for William Beckford that his influence on the ambitions of the first generation of nineteenth century painters became manifest. Indeed, Monro’s students included Turner, Girtin, Constable and Cotman all of whom were indebted to the sublime genius of Cozens: both Turner and Constable, who had declared that Cozens ‘was the greatest genius that ever touched landscape’ are certainly recorded as having owned works by him.
This impressive view shows the Rhone Valley in the canton of Valais, near Geneva, Switzerland. The watercolour is based on a large squared pencil study, dated August 30th 1776, part of a volume entitled 28 sketches by J. Cozens of Views in Italy (Sir John Soane’s Museum, London). The Soane Museum study is inscribed 'Approach to Martinach Pais de Vallais' and dates from Cozens’s first journey abroad when he was accompanied by his patron, Richard Payne Knight. A smaller wash drawing derived from this in the Leeds City Art Gallery bears the inscription Pais de Vallais / near the Lake Geneva. This information suggests that the scene depicts a southward view of the valley between the east end of the lake and Martigny, where the travellers are likely to have turned up the valley towards the north-east, in the direction of Sion, capital of the canton. An old label formerly attached to the mount read: The Valley of Sion, Switzerland, but this is likely to be a misconception as two of Cozens’s other versions of the view show the sun centrally placed, high in the sky, consistent with the southerly direction.
On the back of the Soane drawing Cozens made a list of the eight names of patrons who commissioned finished watercolours of this subject. Bell and Girtin suggest the list was compiled over a period of time. The patrons listed are: Sir R. Hoare, Mr Windham, Mr Wigstead, Mr Sunderland, Mr Chalie, Dr Chelsum, Mr Walwin and Sir Frederick Eden.
With exception of the watercolour presented here, and the one commissioned by Sir Richard Colt Hoare, none of the others can be traced back to the collectors on Cozens’s list. The present work is the largest, and only signed example of the six recorded versions. A label previously attached to the reverse of this watercolour read Cozens or Payne/Belonged to my Father/Given me by Mrs Deverell. A watercolour also in the collection of N. D. Newall (Newall sale, lot 25) was inscribed on a label in the same hand as belonging to Mrs Deverell and signed by William Eden. It was acquired by N. D. Newall at the same time and from the same source as the present watercolour. It seems likely, therefore, that the William Eden was Sir William Eden, 4th Bt (1803-1873) the second son of Sir Frederick Morton Eden, 2nd Bt (1766-1809), and younger brother of Sir Frederick Eden, 3rd Bt (killed in action at the Battle of New Orleans, 1814). Sir Frederick Morton Eden, 2nd Bt, made a journey to Italy in 1790 and, very likely ordered this view from Cozens on his return, the artist adding his name to those who had already acquired versions.