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An Enchanted Eye and Hand

The last six lessons of my online course, Watercolour A to Z, began with the letter U and that fundamental technique of art practise, the underpainting. In watercolour, there’s no better exemplar of the technique than John Robert Cozens, an early pioneer of landscape art who made a deep impression on many other artists of the early nineteenth century. Cozens travelled to Italy and Switzerland in his early twenties at the invitation of the author, William Beckford and produced a great number of fine paintings that were regarded, not only for the delicacy of their execution, but also for their unsual atmospherics. In Cozens’ work, we see the first hints of a romantic landscape attuned to the emotions of the artist himself and a similar preoccupation with the kind of light effects that are present in the work of both Constable and Turner, some thirty years later. Tragically for Cozens, however, it is darkness and not light, that ultimately possesses him and taints the life of JMW Turner, too.

At the end of the eighteenth century, if you were a serious student of the gentle art of watercolour, you might well have gathered with Messrs Varley, Turner, Girtin, Cotman et al at Dr Monro’s ‘painting academy’ at 8 Adelphi Terrace in London, to copy his sizeable collection of prints and drawings for ‘2s 6d or 3s 6d an evening and a bowl of oysters.’








Other artists would come and go, but Girtin and Turner, who were about eighteen years old at the time, were something of a double-act and had quite a production line going on a Friday evening at the doctor’s home, with Girtin ‘[drawing] in outlines and Turner [washing] in the effects.’ In many of these early watercolours, it’s impossible to tell their style apart and which artist did what. The two pictures above, for example, are joint efforts; copies of paintings by John Robert Cozens, who had undertaken his trips to Italy about ten years earlier.

Cozen’s father, by the way, was none other than ‘Blotmaster General to the Town,’ Alexander Cozens, whom I wrote about in a previous post.

Left: an Alexander Cozens blot painting from his pamphlet, A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1785)


A John Robert Cozens sketch (1776)

Monro was a keen amateur artist, himself and such an admirer of John Robert Cozens’ work that he’d acquired his entire collection. Cozens’ painting, ‘Landscape with Hannibal in His March Over the Alps, Showing to His Army the Fertile Plains of Italy’ is now lost, but it wasn’t lost on the young Turner who regarded it as ‘a work from which he learned more than anything he had then seen.’





Soon, he was putting Cozen’s atmospherics and vast panoramas to use in his own work, with sensational effect


John Constable, that other nineteenth century star and Turner’s Royal Academy sparring partner, described Cozens as “the greatest genius that ever touched landscape,” and Henry Fuseli, Keeper of the Royal Academy, declared his paintings to be “creations of an enchanted eye drawn with an enchanted hand.”

John Robert Cozens, Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo (1777)  sold at auction in 2010 for £2.4 million)

John Robert Cozens, Villa D’Este (1780)

But there is another reason why Cozens had come to the attention of Thomas Monro and that was because of the good doctor’s day job as Chief Physician at Bethlem Royal Hospital for Lunaticks. At 42, Cozens had suffered a nervous breakdown, severe enough, Monro determined, to require admission. So, while Turner and Girtin were emulating Cozen’s work in one room of the doctor’s home, the artist himself, was confined to another, ‘Paralytic to a degree that incapacitated him,’ his family facing financial ruin and forced to rely on friends and patrons, like Monro, for support. In the light of Cozen’s circumstances, the doctor’s apparent act of philanthropy is compromising, to say the least.





‘Bedlam,’ as it was known, was pretty well a family business for Doctor Monro. His father and grandfather had been Chief Physicians before him and the Monros had amassed a deal of wealth as a consequence. By the time Cozens was placed under Monro’s care, the public visits that had made the asylum notorious had stopped, but treatment still included beating, blood-letting, purgatives, the raising of blisters and restraint. Monro’s philosophy was that medication was not necessarily the answer and that ‘seclusion, diet and moral management’ were more important – his way of justifying the fact, perhaps, that his patients slept on straw and were locked in their cells for fifteen hours a day. Lodged safely at Adelphi Terrace, Cozens would have escaped the treament meted out to Doctor Monro’s other patients, but nevertheless, within three years, ‘the greatest genius that ever touched landscape’ was dead.

Come the new century, as Bedlam crumbled through neglect, Dr Munro took in a new inmate by the name of Mary Turner. Her son, his former tutee and by now, a well-known artist, with the means to pay for her care, washed his hands of her instead. With the rest of the family pleading poverty, Munro chose to look the other way, too and Mary received little attention whilst confined. She was eventually diagnosed as incurable and discharged, but as the family refused to have her back, she remained locked away.

Mary Turner died, alone and in squalor, a year later. By then, her son was comfortably ensconced in rooms in Harley Street while his father, son and mistress shared a house just around the corner.


Dr. Thomas Monro (1759–1833)


Doctor Monro went on to attend King George III during his second illness (although Queen Charlotte knew enough about the doctor’s bedside manner to ensure that he was no more than an observer). Then, in 1816, following an inquiry into Bethlem Hospital at which he was denounced as ‘wanting in humanity,’ Monro was obliged to resign.

This is a  grim story, but to judge eighteenth century morals with a twenty-first century mind is perhaps unhelpful. We may have the benefit of two hundred more years of hindsight than the Georgians of Britain, but are we not still wrestling with the ways in which we treat one another? Perhaps our values don’t change that much; only our scapegoats.

As for the great JMW Turner, I picture him in a lamplit room at 8 Adelphi Terrace on a Friday night with a bowl of oysters, his pencil and paints at his side and a John Robert Cozens sketch before him, keenly aware, as he gazes at the efforts of that ‘enchanted’ eye and hand, that good health, sanity -even life itself – hang by a thread and his work, the only salvation.

Cedar, after John Robert Cozens from ‘Delineations of the General Character and Ramifications of Forest Trees’ 1789 (a set of 14 etchings rejected by the Royal Academy as ‘not proper art’) from Watercolour A to Z: U is for Underpainting.
Fir, after John Robert Cozens from ‘Delineations of the General Character and Ramifications of Forest Trees’ 1789 (a set of 14 etchings rejected by the Royal Academy as ‘not proper art’) from Watercolour A to Z: U is for Underpainting.








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