13 Sep 2018

David Cox:
Impressionist Influencer

Some of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s famous collection of Pre-Raphaelite art is on tour. Over 200 works have travelled to America for ‘Victorian Radicals’, an exhibition touring the States from October 2018. What this means is that the museum has put together a new display, showcasing paintings by Birmingham-born landscape artist David Cox (1783–1859). If you haven’t heard of David Cox, here’s an introduction to this important artist, whose work can be understood as a precursor to Impressionism. 

Painting en plein air 

Cox, who was born in Digbeth, spent his early art career by painting landscape scenery for the theatre. However, by the early 19th century he had begun to take watercolour lessons with John Varley (a close friend of William Blake). Mastering the medium, he made several watercolour sketching tours around the UK, including to Derbyshire, Devon, Wales and Yorkshire to paint the local landscape. From 1805 his works were exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, and he became well-known for his atmospheric watercolour depictions of the British countryside and coast. 

His works show an affinity with two other British painters: John Constable and J. M. W. Turner. All three artists often painted en plein air. Working directly from nature, they captured in paint the cloudy, changeable weather and rich, green landscape of the UK.

There’s a strong sense of immediacy to Cox’s watercolours, such as ‘Carting Home the Plough’, 1848, which are defined by brooding, romantic skies above small figures working or travelling across the land.

Carting Home the Plough by David Cox, 1848

David Cox, Carting Home the Plough

A Birmingham group of landscape artists 

Cox wasn’t the only Birmingham landscape painter working in the late 18th/early 19th century. Although not a formal organisation, artists including Daniel Bond, who was active in the 1760s, Thomas Creswick and Thomas Baker committed their careers to painting the local landscape. These artists, including Cox, travelled regularly to North Wales to seek rugged, rural landscapes and hinterland worthy of their watercolour paintings.

A turning point, aged 56 

It was in 1839, aged 56, that Cox first learnt to paint in oils, taking lessons from an artist 30 years his junior, William James Müller. This was a turning point for the artist. Giving up teaching, he spent the rest of his life painting full time, from his home in Harborne. He continued to make watercolour sketches en plein air, but painted over 300 oils from his studio.

One of the highlights of the museum’s display is ‘Crossing the Sands’ by Cox. And you can’t tell it was painted indoors. Look at the sweeping, stormy sky, the wind blowing across the sands and sun trying to break though. This artwork is typical of the artist’s oil paintings, in which masterfully drawn figures confront the elements, and travel across vast landscapes. It is one of a series of works in which he depicted the expansive coastal stretch of Morecambe Bay.

His later landscapes in oil became increasingly abstract and expressive, dividing critics, as many preferred more picturesque paintings of a classicised countryside. Instead, they were confronted with blustery beach scenes, in which figures’ cloaks are swept up in the cold.

Crossing the Sands by David Cox, 1848

David Cox, Crossing the Sands

An influencer of Impressionism 

Cox travelled to Northern France on several occasions, including trips to Calais, where he painted the French coastline in an impressionistic manner. At the very end of his career a selection of Cox’s paintings were exhibited in Paris at the 1855 Paris Universal Exhibition to wide acclaim.

His paintings are also known to have been studied by two young artists, during their stay in London in 1870: Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Just 4 years later they launched Impressionism in Paris, with their quickly-painted landscapes en plein air. 

So, while some of the Pre-Raphaelites are on tour, don’t miss this display of David Cox artworks in gallery 18 at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. 

Cox in international collections

Did you know Birmingham has the largest collection of David Cox artworks anywhere in the world? 

You can also find his work at the British Museum, The Courtauld Gallery, Tate and the V&A in London; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), Manchester Art Gallery and Tyne & Wear Museums; National Museum Wales (Cardiff); the National Gallery of Scotland (Edinburgh); Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge MA) and Fine Art Museums of San Francisco; and Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (Victoria, Canada).

Ruth Millington is an art blogger and writer based in Birmingham. You can find her arts and culture blog about Birmingham artists and exhibitions here: www.ruthmillington.co.uk