This watercolour is part of a small group made by John Robert Cozens in the same format in about 1776 which depict historical scenes. The dramatic, concentrated roundels demonstrate Cozens’s early absorption of his father, Alexander’s innovative pictorial techniques, but in their breadth of handling and communication of intense atmosphere point towards the sublimity of his mature works. The subject of this roundel in particular is of great historical importance. Illustrating a passage from Livy, showing Hannibal and his men viewing the Po valley beyond the foothills of the Alps, a scene no other artist had chosen as the subject of a history painting during the eighteenth century. Perhaps more importantly it was a subject which Cozens would treat again in his only recorded oil painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776. As the nineteenth-century painter and art writer C.R. Leslie noted: 'John Robert Cozens exhibited only one oil at the Royal Academy during his lifetime, a picture entitled A Landscape with Hannibal in His March Over the Alps, Showing to His Army Fertile Plains of Italy. This I have heard was an oil picture so fine that Turner spoke it as a work from which he learned more than anything he had then seen.'
Cozens’s great oil painting of Hannibal in His March Over the Alps has been missing since 1876 making the present wash roundel a crucial piece of evidence in understanding the lost work. Hannibal Showing to his Army the Fertile Plains of Italy is also one of the most compelling early essays by Cozens executed before he took his transformative trip to Italy later the same year with Richard Payne Knight.
The composition of the present work, like the other roundels from the same sequence, show John Robert Cozens experimenting with the kind of fantastic rock formations most closely associated with the work of his father, Alexander Cozens. Indeed it has been suggested that these early roundels actually evolved from blots. Alexander Cozens had developed a method of compositional invention which was reliant on accidental or random mark making – known as blot drawings – to form the basis for more finished landscape sheets. The present drawing, which shows Hannibal and his men standing on a jagged escarpment with a subtly receding landscape in the background, anticipates the kind of Alpine view Cozens would become famous for depicting after his Continental tour, pointing to an early technical sophistication. It has not previously been noted but in one of the other roundels in this group, the Fleet at Anchor in a Rocky Cove (possibly Ulysses’s Fleet in the Bay of Laestrigonia) now in the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, Cozens uses scratching out to suggest the spray on the rocks, a technique he would pioneer in his later Alpine views.
The precise context of the existing roundels is unclear. The first four appeared on the market in 1933, the fifth at auction in 1951 having descended from Cozens’s illegitimate daughter; whilst two of them seem to depict Miltonic subject-matter and two Homeric subjects, the fifth is Hannibal in His March Over the Alps from Livy. Given their format, they may well have been designed as book illustrations and Oppé even suggested that they may be associated with an uncompleted project initiated by William Beckford. This imaginative watercolour stands as important evidence for Cozens’s pre-Italian work, his technical breadth and compositional innovation. The image also preserves Cozens’s most innovative subject matter and provides significant evidence for his lost oil, a work which had tremendous impact on Turner and the conception of sublime landscape in the Romantic era.
- C.R. Lewis, A Handbook for Young Painters, London, 1855, p.263.
- Kim Sloan, Alexander and John Robert Cozens / The Poetry of Landscape, New Haven and London, 1986, pp.103-105.
- Andrew Wilton, The Art of Alexander and John Robert Cozens, exh. cat., New Haven (Yale Center for British Art), 1980, p.9.
- Martin Butlin, Aspects of British Painting 1550-1800: From the Collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, 1988.
- A.P.Oppé Alexander and John Robert Cozens, London, 1952p.126-127.