As Birmingham prepares to host a major exhibition of one of its most famous artistic sons, Terry Grimley looks at the legacy of watercolourist David Cox.


Considering it’s the second largest city in the UK, Birmingham has produced disappointingly few artists of renown.

Two figures from the 19th century, David Cox and Edward Burne-Jones, stand out. David Bomberg, widely regarded as one of the greatest British painters of the 20th century, was born here in 1890, but his family moved to London almost immediately.

Probably the most internationally-known living artists born in the city are the sculptor Raymond Mason, who has lived in Paris since the late 1940s, and abstract painter John Walker, long based in New York.

Cox and Burne-Jones suffered years of neglect due to the vagaries of art fashion. In Burne-Jones’ case it was part of the backlash against all things Victorian in the first half of the 20th century, and it is interesting to reflect while Cox is primarily associated with an earlier phase of British art, he remained active for the first 20 years of Victoria’s reign.

Burne-Jones underwent international rediscovery ten years ago when an exhibition marking the centenary of his death was shown in New York, Paris and Birmingham. Now the 150th anniversary of Cox’s death, next year, has prompted a major exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven.

The exhibition comes to Birmingham in the new year, the catalogue has been published here by Yale University Press. It’s a real coffee table book, the first of its size dedicated to Cox and perhaps a sign an artist who has been taken for granted is about to win renewed respect.

The main catalogue essay is by Scott Wilcox, curator of prints and drawings at Yale, with a number of specialist contributions, including one by Victoria Osborne of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery on Cox’s relationship with his home town and one by Charles Nugent on the problem of Cox forgeries.

Known mainly as a painter in watercolour, Cox is one of the major figures in the golden age of that medium and of English landscape painting, which began towards the end of the 18th century and might be thought of ending with the death of Turner in 1851.

Cox was born in Heath Mill Lane, Digbeth, in 1783 and gained early experience as a theatrical scene painter. He moved to London in 1804 to pursue this career, but gravitated to the form of art for which he is best known. Between 1814 and 1827 he made a living as a drawing master in Hereford, returned to live in London until 1841 and “retired” to Birmingham, settling at Greenfield House in Harborne (which still survives), where he died in 1859.

Cox, evidently held in great affection in his home town, seems to have been a typical Brummie in his self-effacing dedication. The absence of egotism or scandal would certainly have done little to commend him to biographers.

You might think of him as a prominent member of the supporting cast to the great stars of the early 19th century golden age, Turner and Constable, and at times his work shows an affinity with each. He had a particular fascination with that most British of preoccupations, the weather.

Though his work is closer to Turner, who also worked extensively in watercolour, where Cox followed a parallel development from the tinted drawings of the topographical tradition towards a freer, romantic approach, he was temperamentally closer to the stay-at-home Constable.

He certainly had little of Turner’s wanderlust, making limited ventures across the Channel and increasingly coming to rely on well-trodden subjects, particularly North Wales.

And yet, among a vast output that can be repetitious, a painting like The Night Train (1849) leaps out as a powerful image of European romanticism. In the less familiar version in Leeds City Art Gallery the horses who stand motionless in the Birmingham version have been stampeded by the distant train, calling Gericault or Delacroix to mind.

Scott Wilcox is much concerned with the broadness and roughness of handling which became progressively more apparent in Cox’s later works and the sometimes negative responses of critics who found it excessive. During these years Cox famously took to using “Scotch” paper, a coarse variety of wrapping paper later marketed to artists as “Cox paper”.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a case was argued for Cox as a precursor of Impressionism. This was based less on his roughly painted late watercolours than the oil paintings he began producing in the 1840s (he also produced a small but tantalisingly fresh group of oil paintings at the beginning of the century). Perhaps it’s largely to do with the coincidence of subject matter the loosely painted beach scenes produced in Lancashire and North Wales easily call to mind Boudin.

The Cox-as-Impressionist idea is interestingly absent here, aside from references to a book published in France in 2000 which evidently took this as its premise. Historic perspectives change, and maybe we are less concerned than we were 40 years ago with demonstrating all roads lead to Impressionism.

Cox’s reputation among enthusiasts for British watercolour has never dimmed – which partly, with the additional confusion of Cox having an artist son with same name, accounts for some of the problems of attribution which have been exacerbated by deliberate forgery. It is fascinating to learn from Charles Nugent’s essay even works included in the 1983 centenary exhibition at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery have since been found to be by others.

To make a forger’s job worthwhile art has to be valuable, and there is a revealing essay by Stephen Wildman, formerly of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, charting the rise and fall of Cox’s reputation and corresponding prices commanded by his work. The Skylark, sold for £50 in the year of Cox’s death, was bought by the industrialist Joseph H Nettlefold for £2,300 in 1873. A century after Cox’s death its value must have fallen to somewhere near the first figure (in cash terms, that is, leaving aside the difference in value of £50 in 1959). Just at that time eight paintings acquired through the Nettlefold bequest were disposed of by the Museum & Art Gallery for derisory sums.

This is an embarrassing episode to recall at a moment when Cox appears once more to be coming into his own. Not surprisingly, there is no reference to it in the catalogue of an exhibition in which Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is an active partner.