Soon after 1820 Cox entered his second period. He achieved detachment and developed his own style with broken colour, repetition of short swift touches, concern with rapid changes of light and atmosphere, sense of the earth spinning underfoot and dizzy clouds racing in the sky. Girtin and Cotman and De Wint filled their drawings with things that have the beauty of time, aged trees, and churches, buildings and barns, rich in a mellowness inherited from the past, warm with the patina spread over them through long cycles of years. But whereas gravity and calmness and serenity brought out the best in these artists, it was the change and caprice of Nature which inspired Cox to his happiest efforts. He was at his best on one of those days when the wind makes the kites fly, and the sails of windmills go merrily spinning, and birds seem to be tossed by gusty winds. Cox enjoyed the movement of clouds above his head, the stream of sunshine in April showers, the fleeting gleam and shadow chasing across the heath. It is of this middle period that Ruskin wrote, over a hundred years ago. After a dictum that ‘style is the saying of a particular thing in the only way in which it can possibly be said’, he adds:

The recollection of this will keep us from being offended with the loose and blotted handling of David Cox. There is no other means by which his object could be attained; the looseness, coolness and moisture of his herbage, the rustling crumpled freshness of his broad-leaved weeds, the play of pleasant light across his deep heathered moor or flashing sand, the melting of fragments of white mist into the dropping blue above; all this has not been fully recorded except by him, and what there is of accidental in his mode of reaching it, answers gracefully to the accidental part of nature herself. Yet he is capable of more than this, and if he suffers himself uniformly to paint beneath his capability, that which began in feeling must necessarily end in manner. He paints too many small pictures, and perhaps has of late permitted ^ his peculiar execution to be more manifest than is necessary. Of this, he is himself the best judge. For almost all faults of this kind the public are answerable, not the painter. [Modern Painters, vol. I, sec. I., chap. VII.]

That is a perfect contemporary summary of Cox’s greatness, and his weakness, and the cause of it. [205-06; emphasis added]


Hardie, Martin. Water-colour Painting in Britain: The Romantic Period. Ed. Dudley Snelgrove, Jonathan Mayne, and Basil Taylor. London: B. T. Batsford, 1967. II, 190-209.

Solly, N. Neal. Memoir of the Life of David Cox. London 1873; facsimile edition, London 1973..

Last modified 27 June 2020