(29 April 1783 - 7 June 1859)
Landscape painter, was born in Heath Mill Lane at Deritend, a suburb of Birmingham, 29 April 1783. His father, Joseph Cox, was a blacksmith and whitesmith, and his mother (whose maiden name was Frances Walford) was the daughter of a farmer and miller. She had had a better education than his father, and was a woman of superior intelligence and force of character. She died in 1810, and his father married again, and died about twenty years afterwards, having received an annuity from his son for many years. Joseph and Frances Cox had only one other child, Maryanne, older than David, who married an organist of Manchester, named Ward. After her husband's death she resided at Sale, where her brother used frequently to stay with her.
When about six or seven years old, Cox was sent to a day school. His first box of colours was given to amuse him when confined to his bed with a broken leg. He used them first to paint kites for his schoolfellows, but when he got better he copied engravings and coloured them. Then came a short period at the free school at Birmingham, after which he worked for a little while in his father's smithy. As he was not a strong boy, they proposed to apprentice him to one of the so-called ‘toy trades’ originated by Mr. John Taylor of Birmingham, the toys consisting of buttons, gilt and lacquered buckles, snuff-boxes, lockets, etc., mounted in metal work and painted. One workman is said to have earned 3l. 10s. a week by painting tops of snuff-boxes at one farthing each. To qualify him for this employment, Cox was sent to the drawing school of Joseph Barber [q. v.], where he made much progress. Joseph Barber was the father of the artists Charles [q. v.] and John Vincent Barber. Both were at that time studying under their father, and Cox formed a lasting friendship with Charles.
At the age of fifteen Cox was apprenticed to a locket and miniature painter in Birmingham, named Fielder. He attained to considerable efficiency in the art, as is plain from a photograph of a locket painted with a boy's head which is contained in Solly's ‘Memoir.’ His engagement was terminated in about eighteen months by the suicide of Fielder, whose body Cox was the first to find hanging on the landing. He then, through a cousin named Allport, got employed in grinding colours, etc., for the scene-painter at Birmingham Theatre, and continued his studies at Barber's. Old Macready (the father of the great tragedian) was then lessee and manager, and Cox worked with an Italian scene-painter named De Maria, an artist of whose works Cox used in after years to speak with enthusiasm. Cox soon began to paint side scenes, and brought himself specially into notice by painting a portrait of an actress which was needed for the scenery of a play. Macready then appointed him his scene-painter. Always kind to children, he painted scenes for little Macready's toy theatre, which were long preserved in the family. For two or three years Cox remained with the elder Macready, travelling about with the ‘players’ to Bristol, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, and other places, sometimes taking minor parts when wanted, once appearing as a clown. When he could he still went out sketching with the Barbers. The life and manners of his stage companions were not congenial to him, and, having quarrelled with Macready, he got released from his engagement, and determined to go up to London.
He was now twenty years of age, and he accepted a proposal of Mr. Astley to paint scenes for his theatre in Lambeth. His mother came with him and settled him in lodgings with a widow named Ragg, in a road not far from Astley's Circus. Mrs. Ragg had two daughters, the eldest, Mary, Cox afterwards married. Finding the scene-loft at Astley's full, and characteristically unwilling to intrude himself, he sought work elsewhere, and painted for the Surrey Theatre and for the theatre at Swansea, and for the theatre at Wolverhampton. By this time he had commenced his career as a landscape-painter in water-colours. Mr. Everitt, a dealer in drawings, etc., of Birmingham, introduced him to some friends, and his son Edward was one of his first pupils. Charles Barber and Richard Evans came up from Birmingham and sketched with him, and he sold his drawings at two guineas a dozen to Simpson of Greek Street. At this time, and for some years after, the banks of the Thames in and near London afforded materials for many of his drawings. He took lessons from John Varley, who refused to accept payment from him after the first few. In 1805 and 1806 he made sketching tours in North Wales. In 1808 Cox married Miss Ragg, who was some twelve years his senior, and removed to a cottage at the corner of Dulwich Common, where their only child David [q. v.] was born next year. Through Colonel the Hon. H. Windsor (afterwards Earl of Plymouth), Cox got some good introductions as a teacher of drawing, and was able to raise his fees from 5s. to 10s. a lesson. While living at Dulwich, Cox was drawn for the militia, and, after trying in vain to get off, he left home for a while quietly, returning when the fear of being arrested as a deserter was over. This interrupted his engagements as a drawing-master. His resources at this time appear to have been very low, and he commenced giving lessons in perspective to builders and artisans. The prices obtained by him for his drawings were still very small, ranging from seven shillings for a small sketch to six pounds for a large coloured drawing. In 1812 he took his wife to Hastings, and sketched with Havell [q. v.] in oils. He also went home nearly every year, and took some sketching excursions in Staffordshire and Warwickshire. He did not join the Society (now the Royal Society) of Painters in Water-colours till 1813, but before this he belonged to another society which failed. This was probably the short-lived ‘Association of Artists in Water-colours,’ started in 1808. The works of the society to which Cox belonged were, a year or two afterwards, seized by the owners of the Exhibition Gallery, and several of Cox's were sold. One of them, purchased by Mr. J. Allnutt (a view of ‘Windsor Castle’), was found in 1861, when Mr. Allnutt's collection was being prepared for sale, to have two other drawings underneath it attached to the sketching-board.
In 1813 he accepted an appointment as teacher of drawing at the Military Academy at Farnham, but this obliged him to break up his home, and after a few terms he found the duties too uncongenial to continue. In the following year he took up his residence at Hereford as drawing-master in Miss Croucher's school, at a salary of 100l. a year, with liberty to take pupils. At Hereford he remained till the close of 1826, living first in an old cottage at Lower Lyde. In the spring of 1815 he moved to George Cottage, All Saints, and at the end of 1817 to Parry's Lane; here he stayed to the end of 1824, when he moved to a house built by himself on land of his own. This property, called ‘Ashtree House,’ he then disposed of for about 1,000l. to Mr. Reynolds, a West Indian planter, who changed the name to Berbice Villa.
These years at Hereford, like all his years, were filled with hard work, and marked by gradual progress in the mastery of his art. He taught at Miss Croucher's till the end of 1819, and at the Hereford grammar school for some years from 1815, receiving only six guineas a year from the latter. He also taught at a school kept by Miss Poole, and at others at Leominster and neighbouring places. He gave lessons in many private families, some at a distance from Hereford. About 1812 he began to make etchings (soft ground) on copper from his own drawings, for his educational works on landscape art. The first of these was published by S. & J. Fuller, London, 1814, and is called ‘A Treatise on Landscape Painting and Effect in Water-colours, from the first Rudiments to the finished Picture, with examples in outline effect and colouring.’ This work was illustrated by a number of soft etchings and coloured aquatints. It was followed in 1816 by ‘Progressive Lessons in Landscape for young beginners,’ a series of twenty-four soft etchings without letterpress. In 1820 appeared some views of Bath (Lansdowne Crescent, the Pump Room, etc.), and in 1825 his ‘Young Artists' Companion, or Drawing-Book of Studies,’ etc. All these works were published by S. & J. Fuller, London. During his stay near Hereford he contributed regularly to the exhibitions of the Society of Painters in Water-colours. He sent twenty-three drawings in 1824, thirty-three in 1825, and twenty-two in 1826. He also, both at Parry's Cottage and Ashtree House, took pupil-boarders at the rate of 70l. or seventy guineas for board, lodging, and instruction. By dint of all this industry and the exercise of economy, Cox, though still poorly paid for his work, managed not only to live but to save a little. Every year he went to London before the exhibitions opened, generally stopping at Birmingham on his way, to see his old friends and sell drawings. In London he usually spent a month or more, and gave lessons to his old pupils, and every year he took a sketching holiday. In 1819 he went to North Devon and Bath, in 1826 to Brussels with his brother-in-law, and through Holland with his kind friends the Hoptons of Canon-Frome Court; but North Wales was his usual resort then as afterwards. So few were the striking events in his life that the entry of Ann Fowler into his service in 1818 (who was never to leave him till his death) and the painting a large drawing in recollection of Turner's picture of Carthage become facts of importance. This drawing was large and highly finished, far brighter in colouring than Cox's usual work. It was sold at the Exhibition of Water-colours in 1825 for 50l., and was afterwards in the Quilter collection.
In 1827 Cox removed to London, and took up his residence at 9 Foxley Road, Kennington Common, where he remained till 1841. In 1829 and 1832 he made short trips to France, visiting Calais, Boulogne, St. Omer, and Dieppe; and between these years he made the acquaintance of William Stone Ellis, Norman Wilkinson, and William Roberts, who, with Charles Birch, were his principal companions on his sketching tours. In 1829 he took lodgings at Gravesend for a while; in 1831 he went with his son to Derbyshire, and made drawings of Haddon Hall, going afterwards to the lakes. In 1834 he accompanied Ellis to Lancaster, and made studies of the Ulverston Sands, Bolsover Castle, and Bolton Abbey. In 1836 he visited Rowsley, Bath, and Buxton, and took a tour in Wales to make sketches for Thomas Roscoe's ‘Wanderings and Excursions, etc., in North Wales’ (1836) and ‘Wanderings and Excursions, etc., in South Wales’ (1837). He made altogether thirty-four drawings for these works, which were engraved by William Radcliffe [q. v.] In 1837 he visited Lord Clive at Powis Castle, and stayed at Seabrook, near Hythe, where he drew Lymne Castle, introduced into a celebrated water-colour drawing called ‘Peace and War.’ His life is indeed little more than an itinerary and a record of hard work in painting and teaching, accompanied by continual increase of power and slow progress in public favour.
He now began to have a great desire to paint in oils. He had sketched in oils as early as 1812, but had not hitherto painted any oil picture, or at least not one of any importance. Mr. Roberts was his great encourager and instructor in this new departure. In 1839, when W. J. Müller [q. v.] returned from his journeys in Greece and Egypt, Cox was introduced to him by Mr. George Fripp, the well-known artist. Cox was at that time fifty-six years old and Müller twenty-seven, but the elder went, and went again, to see the young genius paint. He wondered at the ease and rapidity of his execution, and he watched him with that humility and desire to learn which were his constant qualities through life. One of the pictures which he watched Müller paint was the famous ‘Ammunition Waggon.’ Some of Cox's friends endeavoured to deter him from his resolve to paint in oils, but he was determined to succeed, and he did. One of his oil pictures, ‘Washing Day,’ painted in 1843, or four years after his lessons from Müller, sold at Christie's in 1872 for 945l., and this is far below the prices which his later oil pictures have fetched in recent years. He soon preferred the new medium, and it is now becoming generally recognised that it was better adapted than water-colours to the expression of his peculiar genius; but during his life and for many years after his death he was scarcely known as a painter in oils.
It was partly because he wished to devote himself to painting in oils that he left London in 1841 and returned to the neighbourhood of his native place; and it was at Greenfield House, Greenfield Lane, Harborne, near Birmingham, that he lived from that year till his death. To this period belong all his great oil pictures and the noblest and most poetical of his water-colour drawings. The inspiration of most of these was drawn mainly from North Wales, especially from Bettws-y-Coed and its neighbourhood, to which he paid a yearly visit from 1844 to 1856. In 1843 he had a somewhat serious illness, and to recruit himself he went to stay with his sister at Sale. Though now attaining the zenith of his power, his prices were still low, and his greatness was only recognised by a few. One of his small oils was rejected by the British Institution in 1844, and the following year his drawings were ill-hung at the Water-colour Society, and he complained that he could not finish to please the public. This year he had a bad chest attack, and went to Rowsley, Haddon Hall, and later to the Royal Oak at Bettws. It was in this year also that he lost his wife, whose health had been gradually failing for some time. They had lived very happily together for thirty-seven years, and he felt her loss deeply. She was a very intelligent woman, who took the greatest interest in his work. She sat with him while he painted, and was an admirable and severe critic. Cox's deep religious convictions aided him in recovering from this blow. In December he wrote to his son and daughter-in-law: ‘I certainly was very much out of spirits when I wrote on Thursday, but I am much better now; and I believe I have no real cause to be otherwise, for all things, I feel, are ordained for the very best, for my good. I have been at my work with more calmness, and shall, I have no doubt, do better and be better in all ways, with God's grace and assistance. Your letter was of the most encouraging kind, too, with regard to my work, and yesterday I took your advice and immediately took up a canvas to begin an oil for the institution.’ This picture was called ‘Wind, Rain, and Sunshine’ (or ‘Sun, Wind, and Rain’), a title suggested by Turner's ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed,’ exhibited the previous year (1844) at the Royal Academy. The next year (1846) he painted two of his most celebrated oil pictures, ‘The Vale of Clwyd’ (3 ft. 3 in. by 4 ft. 8 in.) and ‘Peace and War’ (18½ in. by 24 in.). The former was returned unsold from the Liverpool Exhibition, in the catalogue of which it was priced at eighty guineas; the latter was given to a friend, and afterwards bought from him by Cox for 20l., and sold again by Cox for the same sum. In 1872 ‘The Vale of Clwyd’ was sold for 2,200l., and ‘Peace and War’ (quite a small picture) for 3,601l. 10s. Another ‘Vale of Clwyd’ (painted 1848) sold the same year for 2,500l. Indeed he may be said to have spent the rest of his life in painting pictures and making drawings which are now (in England) among the most highly prized and coveted art treasures of the world. In 1883 his ‘Going to the Hayfield’ brought 2,405l., and in 1884, at the sale of Mr. Potter's collection, ‘The Church at Bettws-y-Coed’ sold for 2,677l. At a sale a little later in the same year ‘Going to Market’ fetched 2,047l. ‘The Skylark’ (1849) and ‘The Seashore at Rhyl’ are other oil pictures painted by Cox after 1845 which have in recent years sold for sums exceeding two thousand pounds. His water-colour drawings also fetch large sums. At the Quilter sale (April 1875) 114 drawings, of which many were quite small, sold for rather more than 22,900l., averaging above 200l. each. Two fetched 998l., four others over 1,000l., and one, ‘The Hayfield,’ 2,950l., a price unparalleled for any water-colour, even by Turner. Nor has any landscape of the size of ‘Peace and War’ (oil) ever sold for anything like the same sum. Yet he never received more than 100l. for any one work. A good deal of pity has been expressed for him on this account, but it was well said by Mr. Edward Radcliffe (son of the engraver already mentioned), in a speech delivered at a dinner given by the Liverpool Art Club in 1875 to commemorate an exhibition of David Cox's works, that ‘he would not like his life to have been changed one bit,’ and ‘no man more thoroughly enjoyed his life. His habits and tastes were of the most simple kind. He saved what to him was a large competency. His house with all its surroundings was a model of English comfort. Suppose he had been besieged by patrons and dealers, he might have launched out … kept his carriage, taken his '40 port, and died twenty years before he did, and, instead of being remembered by troops of friends as a dear simple friend, only thought of as a big Mogul.’
The interest of these last years as regards his life is centred at Bettws-y-Coed. As Suffolk to Constable and Norfolk to Old Crome, so was North Wales to Cox. He painted well wherever he went -- London, Hereford, Yorkshire, Lancashire, or Calais -- but it was Wales that he loved and understood best; it was Wales that drew from him his deepest notes of poetry, his noblest sympathy with his kind. He is the greatest interpreter of her scenery and her life. At the Royal Oak at Bettws he put up for some weeks every autumn. In 1847 he repainted its signboard, a subject since of litigation. He also painted a plastered-up door of the inn with a copy of Redgrave's cartoon of Catherine Douglas securing the door with her arm. It was there in 1849 that he sallied forth in the night and washed off from the church porch the drawings of some irreverent young artists. It was there that he saw the touching scene which he afterwards wrought into his noble drawing of the ‘Welsh Funeral.’ It was there he sketched the church, the mill, the ‘big’ meadow, and the peasants gathering peat—all subjects immortalised by his art.
At home he worked as hard as ever. He writes to his son in 1849: ‘In an evening I go to oil painting (small pictures). I wish I could finish them by lamplight as well as I can make a beginning, for I find when I paint in oil and water colours by lamplight my picture is always broader in effect and more brilliant, and often better and more pure in the colour of the tints.’ Now when his power was developing to its greatest, when he was attaining that breadth and brilliancy and that purity of tint in which he has no rival, when he was grasping more firmly than ever the greater truths of nature, its light and air and colour, when he could inspire his work with that large spirit of humanity and that solemn deep feeling which may almost be called biblical, when his hand was trained to express the highest thought of which his nature was capable, just at this time some of his brother-artists, the committee of the society, thought his drawings too rough. ‘They forget,’ wrote Cox with a self-assertion rare to his humble nature, ‘they forget they are the work of the mind, which I consider very far before portraits of places (views).’ This was in 1853, the year of ‘The Challenge’ and ‘The Summit of a Mountain,’ two of the finest of his later works. The former was, however, hung in the place of honour, and the latter found admirers at Harborne, for Cox wrote to his son: ‘Perhaps I am made vain by some here who think my “Summit of a Mountain” worth -- I am almost afraid to say -- 100l., and if I could paint it in oil, I shall some day, with D.V., get that sum.’
This year Cox had a severe attack of bronchitis, and this was followed in June by a rush of blood to the head as he stooped to cut some asparagus in his garden. The effect of the seizure was something like paralysis. He was soon sketching again, but his eyesight was affected and one lid drooped. Nevertheless in 1854 and 1855 he was able to execute some fine drawings and pictures, and in the latter year he went to Edinburgh with his son and Mr. William Hall, an artist, his intimate friend and biographer, to have his portrait painted by Sir John Watson Gordon. The cost of the portrait was subscribed by a committee of his friends and admirers, and it was completed and presented to him in November at Metchley Abbey, Harborne, the residence of Mr. Charles Birch, the chairman. It now belongs to the Birmingham and Midland Institute. Next year it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and Mr. (afterwards Sir William Boxall [q. v.] painted another portrait of him. This year also (1856) Rosa Bonheur came to Birmingham and paid a visit to Cox. Thus, though his full greatness was not recognised, it cannot be said that he was without honour or fame, and his drawings of 1857, ‘rougher’ though they were than ever, are said to have ‘made a great impression on the public. It was known that the state of his health prevented his bestowing the same amount of labour as formerly on the ‘finishing’ of his works, and they were regarded as the last expressions of a great mind in harmony with nature and at rest with itself.’ He went to London again that year, but he was taken unwell at the beginning of June, and though he recovered sufficiently to enjoy painting again, and exhibited drawings in 1858 and 1859, he did not leave Harborne any more. He died on 7 June 1859. He was buried in Harborne churchyard on the 15th, and the funeral was marked by the genuine emotion of all that were present, including the poor of the neighbourhood, to whom he was constant in his charity. A stained glass window to his memory has been placed in Harborne Church, and a bust, by Peter Hollis, is in the Public Art Gallery of Birmingham.
The character of Cox was one of singular nobleness and simplicity, and he was beloved by all who came in contact with him. Of book learning he had little, and his life was devoted to his art, which reflects his deep love of nature, his sympathy with his fellow-men, his faithfulness, his industry, and his imagination. No man appreciated more highly the work of his most gifted contemporaries. He was one of the earliest subscribers to Turner's ‘Liber Studiorum,’ and this at a time when he could ill afford it. He painted, from memory, pictures by Turner, Martin, and Cattermole. He copied from Bonington, and has left records of his appreciation of Cotman and others. Of his art, technically, this is scarcely the place to speak, but of the great band of early English landscape painters there is no one whose methods were more original or successful. He used few colours and a full brush, disregarding small details in order to obtain greater breadth and brilliancy of effect. In the purity of his tints, in the irradiation of his subject with light, in his rendering of atmosphere and atmospheric movement, in the fulness and richness of his colour, his best work is unexcelled. And his colours were the colours of nature; he belonged to what has been called the faithful school of landscape-painting, and he is at the head of it, with Girtin and Constable and De Wint.
There are a number of his drawings in the British Museum and the South Kensington Museum, but no oil picture of his belongs to the nation, and his greatest water-colour drawings are all in private hands.
There have been several exhibitions of Cox's pictures and drawings. One at the end of 1858 (before his death), in the rooms of the Conversazione Society at Hampstead; another in 1859 (170 works), at the German Gallery, New Bond Street; another at Manchester in 1870. The Burlington Fine Arts Club had a small collection in 1873 (lent by Mr. Henderson, and now in the British Museum), and the Liverpool Arts Club a large one (448 works, including five oil pictures) in 1875. He was also represented at the Manchester Exhibition of 1857, at the International Exhibition of 1862, and at Leeds in 1868, but his full power as a painter, especially as a painter in oil colours, has never been so well displayed, nor so fully recognised, as at the exhibition at Manchester this year (1887).
[For the events of his life the chief authorities are Hall's Biography and Solly's Memoir of David Cox. Solly's book, though it appeared some years before Hall's, was based on Hall's manuscript. Both books contain also much about his art, and notes by the artist as to his own practice. For his views on art, see his Treatise on Landscape and other works of his mentioned in the article. See also Palgrave's Handbook to the Fine Art Collections in the International Exhibition of 1862; Redgraves' Century of Painters; Bryan's Dictionary (Graves); Portfolio, iv. 89, vii. 9; Gent. Mag. new ser. xx. 230; Art Journal, ix. 123; Dublin Univ. Mag. liii. 747; Chesneau's English School of Painting; Our Living Artists (1859); Wedmore's Studies in English Art.]