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John Robert Cozens

An Alpine landscape, near Grindelwald, Switzerland

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Pen and brown ink and brown and grey blue wash, on two joined sheets
14 ½ × 18 ½ inches · 368 × 470 mm
Executed in 1776
  • With John Spink, London;
  • Private collection, USA, 2014.

This drawing was made on John Robert Cozens’s first, hugely influential Continental trip. Travelling in the company of the great collector and connoisseur Richard Payne Knight, Cozens set out for Italy in August 1776, first undertaking a short Alpine tour. It was in the monumental landscape of the Alps that Cozens saw at first hand the ideas of the sublime in nature which he had learnt from his artist father, Alexander Cozens and other theorists, such as Edmund Burke. The watercolours Cozens produced over his two months in France and Switzerland are regarded as some of the most compelling of the eighteenth century and as Kim Sloan has noted, in them: ‘Cozens had finally lifted watercolour painting out of the topographical recording of nature, to a new level where it was capable of fulfilling the serious intentions of art as oil painting.’[1]

Cozens and Payne Knight followed a typical round trip from Geneva which included visiting Bonneville, Cluse, Sallanches, Mont Blanc, Chamonix and Martigny before heading through Interlaken and Grindelwald. In a contemporary guidebook, the area was described in the following terms: 'The overhanging rocks of a prodigious height, and torrents pouring down in sheets from their very summits, are such wonders of Nature, as it is impossible to look upon without a mixture of astonishment and awe.'[2]

This combination of ‘astonishment and awe’ were precisely the feelings Cozens captured in the drawings he made for Payne Knight. The present unusual view was made close to Grindelwald, possibly in the valley of Ober-Hasli close to the Reichenbach falls.

Drawn in the autumn of 1776 this bold and striking sheet depicts the Reichenbach stream running close to Grindelwald with the Wetterhorn in the distance. Unlike Cozens’s earliest Alpine views, it does not depict a sweeping valley floor, the expansive views of his Savoyard scenes have been cropped, to focus on the stark grandeur of the mountains themselves. As Kim Sloan has noted, Cozens’s views of the Reichenbach are: ‘realized by the elimination of traditional compositional tools. Distance and horizons are no longer represented and the viewer is faced with a sheer wall of rock that threatens to enclose him by surrounding or reaching over him, and blocking out even the sky.’[3]

Cozens has taken evident delight in the towering rock formations, placing the escarpment on the left almost at the top of the composition, encroaching far into the space generally reserved for the sky. The view shows a debt to Alexander Cozens’s theory of composition which demanded that masses should alternate on either side, thus the peaks on the left are shown as lower, with a wedge shaped valley in between.[4]  The economic, almost monochrome palette adds to the drama of the scene, giving the masses of the mountains covered in spiky, skeletal trees an almost menacing quality. Indeed the drawing is close to one prepared by Alexander Cozens in his Various Species of Composition of Landscapes in Nature which entitled: ‘Tops of Hills or Mountains’.  

Cozens was deeply affected by the sublime nature of the Alpine landscape, but he mediated his response through the compositional theories of his father and contemporary literary and poetic associations. Recent work has shown that very few watercolours were made ‘on the spot’ by British artists travelling on the Continent and from the visual evidence, Cozens’s Payne Knight Alpine watercolours were long thought to be based on a series of drawings assumed no longer to survive.[5]  The present highly energized drawing and its, rough, spontaneous finish suggest that the present sheet may well be one of the drawings Cozens made on the spot.  

Regardless of its status, the present drawing is a particularly important example from Cozens’s first great series of landscape watercolours; a visual essay on responses to the sublime in nature. Cozens’s Alpine Landscape near Grindelwald and other sheets from this trip, had an enormous impact upon the next generation of landscape artists in Britain, including J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Girtin. 


  1. Kim Sloan, Alexander and John Robert Cozens: The Poetry of Landscape, New Haven and London, 1986, p.125.
  2. M. Bourrit, trans. C. Davy, A Relation of a Journey to the Glaciers in the Dutchy of Savoy, Norwich, 1776, p.2. 
  3. Kim Sloan, Alexander and John Robert Cozens: The Poetry of Landscape, New Haven and London, 1986, p.120.
  4. Kim Sloan, Alexander and John Robert Cozens: The Poetry of Landscape, New Haven and London, 1986, pp.36-62.
  5. For a discussion of the Alpine material see: Kim Sloan, Alexander and John Robert Cozens: The Poetry of Landscape, New Haven and London, 1986, pp.115-116.