Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo by John Robert Cozens

Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo by John Robert Cozens (1777)

About the watercolours produced by today’s featured artist, the Swiss-born painter Henri Fuseli wrote:

“…they are creations of an enchanted eye drawn with an enchanted hand…”

The great English landscape artist, John Constable,  wrote of him saying he was:

“…the greatest genius that ever touched landscape…”

So who was this celebrated artist who was so revered by his fellow painters?  His name was John Robert Cozens.  He was born in London in 1752.  He received his initial artistic training from his father, Alexandra Cozens, the Russian-born watercolour landscape artist who was mostly employed in teaching and was drawing-master at Eton school from 1763 to 1768 and also  gave lessons to the Prince of Wales.  He allegedly was the natural son of Peter the Great.  He and his wife Juliet Cozens (née Pine) had one son, John and a daughter Juliet.

John Robert Cozens was, for the most, an en plein air painter and would often go off on sketching tours of Suffolk.  In 1772 he toured the Peak District area continually sketching the rugged landscape.  It was in that same year that he moved to live in Bath where his uncle Robert Pine, the English portrait and historical painter also lived.  In 1776 he exhibited his first oil painting at the Royal Academy and it was well received by the critics. He made his first trip to Europe in 1776, accompanied by Payne Knight.  Knight was a colourful character.  He was a classical scholar and connoisseur, who was best known for his theories of picturesque beauty.  He was later to become a Member of Parliament and he was also a member of the Dilettante Society or Dilettanti which was a society of noblemen and scholars which sponsored the study of ancient Greek and Roman art and the creation of new work in the classical style and it was through his auspices that Cozens made it to Italy. 

During the next eighteen months Cozens toured around the Italian countryside visiting Tivoli, Naples as well as the volcanic lakes of the Alban Hills, which lie twenty kilometers south of Rome.  During his time in this area he made sketches which he would eventually turn into some of the greatest watercolour landscapes ever seen.  His artwork incorporated the classicism of the greats such as Claude, Gaspar Dughet and Nicolas Poussin.  He remained in Rome until April 1779 at which time he returned to England and Bath where he remained for three years.  During this sojourn he set about converting the numerous sketches and drawings he had made on his Italian trip into watercolours, as by this time he had numerous wealthy patrons, who could not get enough of his work as they realised that not only were they things of beauty but also a solid investment for the future.  In May 1782 Cozens, along with a party of companion travelers made up of doctors, teachers, musicians along with a number of servants set off for another journey of discovery to Italy.

The following year Cozens returned to England and set up home in London where he set about producing more watercolours for his various patrons based on what he had seen and recorded during his recent visit.  Whilst living in the capital he took the opportunity to go on sketching trips around the local area and sketched and painted many scenes of the likes of Richmond Hill, and Greenwich and Windsor Parks as well as Thames river scenes.  He was so inundated with commissions from patrons that he never had time to put forward paintings to the Royal Academy exhibitions.

Sadly, like many gifted people, Cozens suffered from bouts of depression, probably caused by his unending and burdening search for artistic perfection.  His health was further affected by a bout of malaria which he had contracted during his Italian visit in 1782.   In 1794, aged just forty-two, his mental health had deteriorated and he had a mental breakdown and was placed under the care of a Doctor Thomas Monro, a physician at the Bethlehem Hospital, better known as Bedlam.   Unable to paint, Cozens and his family faced financial ruin and had to be rescued with the help of patrons and friends.  John Robert Cozens died four years later at the age of forty-five and was buried in London on New Year’s Day 1798.

Whilst Cozens was in the care of his physician Thomas Monro the doctor had access to some of Cozens’ sketches and he employed both Turner and Thomas Girtin to copy them.  The two young aspiring artists were greatly influenced by Cozens’ work.   Cozens was an expert when it came to the painting of trees and in 1789 he published a set of works entitled Delineations of the General Character of Forest Trees.  He submitted it to the Royal Academy but they rejected it saying that it was judged as being “not proper art”.

My Daily Art Display featured watercolour over pencil work today is entitled Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo which Cozens completed in 1777.   This little gem measures just 43cms x 62cms.   It depicts a large panorama of a menacing sky over the darkening hills surrounding Lake Albano, a small volcanic crater lake in the Alban hills of Lazio and the small hill-top town of Castel Gandolfo. There is a solemn grandeur about this work, a sense of vastness as well as an underlying tranquility.  I think there is also an air of mystery to the setting and maybe we are meant to look at it and use our imagination as to what it would be like to stand high above the lake at sunset.  

The work itself which was owned by Professor Ian Craft a fertility doctor, who bought it for £198,500 in 1991.  It went under the hammer at a Sotheby’s auction last year with a catalogue estimate of £500,000 – £700,000.   It finally went to David Thomson, the Third Baron of Fleet, and Canadian media magnet for £2.4 million.  That price represented not just a significant return on investment for the vendor but also a dramatic new high for a work by Cozens.  It easily surpassed the artist’s previous record of £240,000 for Cetara, Gulf of Salerno, Italy at Christie’s in November 2004.  It was also a record, not just for the artist, but for any 18th-century British watercolour.

A huge amount for David Thomson to spend on a work of art ?   Actually minutes earlier he had paid a record £109,250 for a rare drawing entitled Villa Borghese by Richard Wilson, the influential landscape artist I featured recently.  

Who said money cannot buy you happiness?