Alexander Cozen's 'New Method': the blot and general nature.

Author:Cramer, Charles A.
Position:Painter
 
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Born in 1717 to English parents in Peter the Great's Russia, Alexander Cozens was educated from the age of ten in London, where he remained until a brief return to Russia in the late 1730s or early 1740s.(1) In 1746 he was among the first English artists to go to Italy, where he studied under Claude-Joseph Vernet. Between 1749 and 1754 Cozens was drawing master to Christ's Hospital in London, and by the mid-1760s he was at Eton, where he taught both Sir George Beaumont and the famous autobiographer Henry Angelo. Although only nine oil paintings can be attributed to him with any certainty, Cozens exhibited regularly at the Society of Arts, the Free Society of Artists, and the Royal Academy. It is not for his finished oils, however, that Cozens is remembered today, but for his drawings and theories, and for his direct or indirect influence on many of the most celebrated landscape artists of the English tradition.

Cozens was the author of four major treatises on what could be called "practical aesthetics." In his treatise on The Shape, Skeleton and Foliage of Thirty-two Species of Trees for the Use of Painting and Drawing (1771) he attempted to fix the basic forms characterizing trees for the use of landscape painters. His Principles of Beauty Relative to the Human Head (1777-78) was an exemplar of expression, consisting mostly of nineteen plates, one showing the "Simple Beauty" of a woman in profile [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] and the other eighteen showing various formal modifications to that profile that would serve to illustrate some specific "character" (for example, "The Artful," [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]). Another of his major treatises, The Various Species of Composition of Landscape in Nature, has survived only in fragments.

Today, the best known of Cozens's theories is his description of how to form landscape compositions starting from a blot. This method was first published by Cozens in 1759 as An Essay to Facilitate the Inventing of Landskips, Intended for Students in the Arts, and again with a more thorough theoretical apparatus in 1785 under the title A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape.(2) It is with the last-mentioned that I will be principally concerned here. The blot [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 3, 7, 8, 9 OMITTED] was a sort of first indication of a landscape, hastily produced in thick, black ink on white paper, from which the artist could later elaborate a finished composition. In Cozens's own words, the blot is "swift," "suggestive," "instantaneous," "accidental," "casual," and "rude." Our eyes confirm these adjectives; his blots are among the most surprising artistic products of the century. Both the method of blotting and the product seem utterly anomalous to the contemporaneous context of the highly rational classicism of the newly founded Royal Academy under the presidency of Joshua Reynolds. Indeed, the method and the product are only slightly less surprising when considered in the context of the highly inventive and fruitful school of British landscape painting around the turn of the century.

Symptomatically, art historians have had the utmost difficulty in dealing with Cozens and his blots, tending to displace them to nearly any period and culture other than his own.(3) In the 1950s in France, Henri Lemaitre asserted that "Alexander Cozens's experiments of the 1740s and 50s presaged the art that we would later call 'abstract,'" and also cited the influence of "the Far East" on his technique.(4) Louis Hawes in 1969 compared Cozens's depictions of cloudy skies to "a Clyfford Still canvas turned on its side."(5) E. H. Gombrich and Henri Zerner both linked the blots to the famous psychological test introduced by Hermann Rorschach in 1921, and Zerner complemented this anachronism by citing the roots of Cozens's method in the seventeenth-century practice of Baroque artists who would "throw the first thoughts of their compositions in masses of light and shade."(6) The problem underlying these anachronistic attempts to account for Cozens's work is the emphasis placed on the final formal appearance of the blots, to the exclusion of the theory of artistic process that produced their forms.(7)

Recent theoretical treatments have not been much more successful. In a double fallacy, James B. Twitchell's Romantic Horizons suggests that Cozens's method resulted from "youthful impetuosity" (Cozens was already forty-two by the time he first codified his system of blotting in 1759) and repeats the commonplace assertion that "there is something singularly romantic about Cozens."(8) Even Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, in his exhaustive "Introduction to the New Method of Alexander Cozens," finds it necessary to account for Cozens from outside his "historical anchorage." Although meticulous in its primary research, Lebensztejn's first chapter concedes, "if the object that we are attempting to situate is first and foremost an object of surprise, of eccentricity, we must not forget that 'surprise' brings with it the depths [fond] in which that object is anchored."(9) Cozens's work, it seems, is so theoretically and formally suggestive that at any moment, with or perhaps without the intention of the historian, it evades the context of its own culture and turns up in other centuries and other places.

I will argue here that it is possible to understand Cozens's technique of blotting within its "historical anchorage," that of the burgeoning picturesque school of English landscape and even that of the classically inclined Royal Academy. In fact, understanding the relation of the blot to contemporaneous British academic classicism - counterintuitive as it seems - will help to restore to that most long-lived of Western art styles some of the adaptive flexibility that was certainly a condition of its longevity. The displacement of Cozens from his classicizing culture is symptomatic of the tendency of modernism and modernist historiography to arrogate all formal innovation to itself and its privileged history, leaving academic classicism an improbably stale and spent art form for much of its life. My reconsideration of Cozens in this article will center on the importance of what I will call the "techniques of generalization" proper to classicism in the context of eighteenth-century empirical epistemology (the theory of knowledge). Cozens's New Method is a rather disjunctive mixture of very concrete technical issues (such as how to make drawing ink) and very abstruse philosophical issues (such as the nature of artistic genius). The concept of "generalization" links these issues, describing Cozens's interventions in both issues of technique (and hence form) and epistemological issues common also to contemporaneous academic classical art.

The "Blot," the "Sketch" and the Landscape Drawing

We will begin here with the technical aspects of Cozens's method in order to shift our emphasis from the blot as final formal product to the blot as a stage in an overall artistic process. We will then better be able to compare that process with the academic classical process and the picturesque process, even if its product seems at first sight incompatible with both The technical aspects of blotting are outlined by Cozens in five "Rules" following the epistemological apparatus of the New Method (20-31). Rule I describes how "to make Drawing Ink." Rule II tells how "to make Transparent Paper," which would be laid over the blot to make the sketch based on its forms. Rule III gives instruction on how to make a blot, Rule IV how to extrapolate the blot into a landscape sketch, and Rule V how to "finish" that sketch.

Cozens lists three steps to the formation of a blot in Rule III. The first, "Possess your mind strongly with a [general] subject," is deferred by Cozens to "The Descriptions of the Kinds of Landscape Composition" (23 n), and we will also consider it below. The second step is described as follows (23):

  1. Take a camel's hair brush, as large as can be conveniently used, dip it in a mixture of drawing ink and water . . . and with the swiftest hand make all possible variety of shapes and strokes upon your paper, confining the disposition of the whole to the general subject in your mind.

    Fig. 3 is an aquatint of one such blot that accompanied his methodological text. The printmaker made every attempt to maintain the gestural origin of the marks and the thick liquid quality of their medium.

    The third step of Rule III suggests composing a large number of blots from which to select "whenever you are disposed to make a composition of landscape from any one of them" (24). The unfinished sketch after the blot is defined as "a landscape drawing without sky or keeping" (25 n). In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British criticism, keeping indicates the "subordination of lights" in a work (Cozens's definition, 29), or the transitional values that define mass and unify the lighting of a work. Cozens's example of a sketch ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED], which is derived from the blot in [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]) includes two ground planes defined by light to dark gradations that are not established in the blot. This aspect of keeping is permitted when forming a sketch from a blot, as detailed in the third step of Rule IV. Once the original blot is dry, a new sheet of semitransparent paper is placed on it. Starting with a nearly black drawing ink, the practitioner should "consider which way the general light should come on the scene most properly" (that is, from left to right, front to back, or vice versa) and then should "make out and improve the light and dark masses that appear in the first or fore ground of the blot," which is visible through the semitransparent paper. This step translates the original "accidental" forms of the blot into the landscape components that they suggest: you should "[study] every individual form with attention till you...

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