John Robert COZENS
(London 1752 - London 1797)
Lake Nemi looking towards Genzano
363 x 525 mm. (14 1/4 x 20 5/8 in.)
Cozens often repeated his compositions, and this particular view of Lake Nemi seems to have been among his most popular works, to judge by the several autograph versions of it that are known, executed between 1778 and 1790. These include examples in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, as well as a number of private collections. As one scholar has noted of this composition, ‘Lake Nemi was redolent with classical associations and Cozens has successfully captured the aura of the site by placing the foreground in deep shadow, making the lake dead calm, like a mirror, while the eye is led from the crater’s rim to the vastness of the coastal plain beyond, and on to the distant islands.’
Kim Sloan has further noted of this particular composition of Lake Nemi by Cozens that ‘The popularity of this watercolour may have been due to its extremely classical composition, as well as its well-known subject. Lake Nemi (‘Speculum Dianae’, the Mirror of Diana), was the centre of the cult of Diana, who temple was situated out of sight of this view, below the town and castle of Nemi, to which belong the arcades acting as a repoussoir on the right.’
A second trip to Italy in 1782-1783, in the retinue of the wealthy collector William Beckford, resulted in Cozens spending several months in Naples, and then in Rome, and producing a series of almost a hundred finished watercolours of Italian views for Beckford that can be counted among his finest works. Cozens’ health deteriorated in the 1790s, however, and in 1794 he suffered a severe nervous breakdown. He was admitted to the Bethlem Royal Hospital asylum and there placed under the care of the physician and collector Dr. Thomas Monro, who had many of Cozens’s Continental sketches copied by younger artists such as J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Girtin. Cozens died in London in December 1797, at the age of just forty-five.
Cozens seems to have worked exclusively as a draughtsman, and almost no oil paintings by his hand are known. (A now-lost painting of Hannibal Crossing the Alps was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776; the only occasion that he showed his work there.) Although his reputation was based solely on his work as a watercolourist, none of Cozens’s works were engraved, with the result that there was no wider dissemination of his compositions through the medium of reproductive prints. Nevertheless, his watercolours were to be enormously influential among the succeeding generation of English landscape draughtsmen.
For most of his relatively brief career of some twenty years, Cozens worked in a limited palette of light blues, greens and greys, avoiding vivid effects and contrasts in favour of a tonal, atmospheric approach to landscape. As Timothy Wilcox has remarked, ‘the near monochrome watercolours of Cozens…opened up unforeseen possibilities - not only to Turner, but to an entire generation of painters exposed to his work at the London house of Dr Thomas Monro. Monro employed Turner, Girtin and other young artists, including John Varley and John Sell Cotman, to make copies of compositions by Cozens. It was less the subjects themselves, scenes in the Roman Campagna or the Bay of Naples, than the subtlety of Cozens’s wash technique which made the greatest impression; through the extreme refinement of his graduated colour, Cozens evoked the fabled clarity of the Italian atmosphere, and an almost infinite spatial recession.’
Jacqui (Jacob) Eli Safra, Geneva.