'Sun, wind, and rain: the Art of David Cox' Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 16 October 2008-4 January 2009 and Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery Birmingham, 31 January 2009-3 May 2009
Since his death in 1859, David Cox's art has hardly suffered from a lack of critical exposure or commentary. This reached a high point in 1890, when Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, in the city of the artist's birth, appealed to the artist's appreciative Victorian audience with a colossal exhibition of 467 of his works. Although Cox's reputation dwindled in the early 20th century, as part of a wholesale modernist rejection of Victorian art, there were still no fewer than five books devoted to Cox between 1906 and 1949. More recently, he has been the subject of significant exhibitions: at Swansea in 1953 and Birmingham in 1959 and 1983. The current exhibition, organised by the Yale Center for British Art but also shown in Birmingham, (where it was seen by this reviewer), seized the opportunity, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Cox's death, to re-evaluate the artist's reputation in a new era.
The exhibition has been curated by Scott Wilcox of the YCBA (Cox was the subject of Wilcox's 1984 doctoral dissertation) and Victoria Osborne of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. The display contained around 140 works, from public and private collections in the US and the UK, many of them from Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery (BMAG), which holds over 500 works by the artist. The selection includes watercolours, drawings, a fewer number of oils and a handful of prints from Cox's drawing manuals. The hang was chronological although this arrangement did permit more thematic sections of the artist's work on the Continent and Wales.
Cox has been treated to an array of sometimes unhelpful art-historical labelling, the loose brushwork of his late works allowing him to be called a precursor of the French Impressionists; (1) and more recently as a rigorous adherent of the 18th-century theories of the Sublime and Picturesque. (2) Wilcox takes a broader approach, refusing to reduce the freshness and directness of the artist's work to any system. In the choice of exhibition title, 'Sun, wind and rain', named after Cox's watercolour of 1845, Wilcox establishes what he considers the artist's central achievement: his creation of a unique expressive language in which he could represent the changeability of the (particularly British) weather. In this watercolour, on show here next to a less successful oil version, Cox depicts a man on horseback, with a woman holding an umbrella at his side; he skilfully captures the rain and wind lashing down on the figures, while to the far left of the composition the stormclouds are receding and the sun appearing. Cox's brilliant achievement in representing nature and its mixture of elemental forces is clear, but, as Wilcox has pointed out in the catalogue, it would be a mistake to interpret this as springing solely from an intuitive or even naive connection with nature, a characterisation which has coloured Cox's reputation since his death. Instead, this exhibition sets out to show Cox's substantial development and growth over a lengthy career, his '... internalisation of a lifetime of lessons... not just from nature, but ... old masters, his fellow artists, literature and history'. (3)
The exhibition begins with Cox's first period in London 1804-14, when he began to establish himself as a watercolour painter. Cox took lessons from John Varley and his stylistic debt to the older artist is evident in the crisp edges and block-like forms of watercolours such as The Old Bridge at Bridgnorth, Shropshire, c1809 (private collection). The inclusion of the V&A's early watercolour of Windsor Park, 1807, and Birmingham's Kenilworth Castle, cl807,reveal the extent to which Cox was learning to emulate classical landscape painting at this stage: both works bear a close resemblance to and are conceivably inspired by Gaspard Dughet's Landscape with a Shepherd and his Flock. …