COX, DAVID (1783-1859), English painter, was born on the 29th of April 1783, in a small house attached to the forge of his father, a hardworking master smith, in a mean suburb of Birmingham. Turning his hand to what he could get to do, Joseph Cox, the father, was both blacksmith and whitesmith, and when the war with France began took to the making of bayonets and horse shoes, on wholesale commission, and immediately the boy David was thought able to assist he was taken from the poor elementary school in the neighbourhood, and set to the anvil. The attempt to turn the boy to this kind of labour had, however, been made too early; it was too heavy for his strength, and he was sent to what was called by the cyclops of Birmingham a "toy trade," making lacquered buckles, painted lockets, tin snuff-boxes and other "fancy" articles. Here David very soon acquired some power of painting miniatures, and his talents might have been misdirected had his master, Fieldler by name, not released him from his apprenticeship by dying by his own hand; and David found an opening as colour-grinder and scene-painter's fag in the theatre then leased, with several others, by the father of Macready, the tragedian.
This obscure step, not one of promotion at the time, was really the most important incident in the uneventful career of Cox. The boy, who had inherited a rather weakly body, and had been trained with care by a pious mother, while intellectually negative and unable to cope with any kind of learning whatever, had endless perseverance, great strength of application, and all through life remained genial, gentle, simple-minded and modest, his penetration and self-reliance being wholly professional, inspired by his love of nature and his knowledge of his subject. Not very quick, and with little versatility, he went step by step in one line of study from the time he began to get the smallest remuneration for his pictures to the age of seventy-five, when he painted large in oil very much the same class of subjects he had of old produced small in water-colours, with the same impressive and unaffectedly noble sentiment, only increased by the mastery of almost infinite practice. He was never led astray by fictitious splendour of any kind, except once indeed in 1825, when he imitated Turner, and produced a classic subject he called "Carthage, Aeneas, and Achates." He never visited Venice or Egypt, or crossed the Channel except for a week or two in Belgium and Paris, and never even went to Scotland for painting purposes. Bettws-y-Coed and its neighbourhood was everything to him, and characteristics most truly English were beloved by him with a sort of filial instinct. So completely did he love the country, that even London, where it was his interest to live, had few attractions, and did not retain him long.
This residence in the metropolis which began in 1804 was, however, of the most essential educational advantage to him. The Water-Colour Society was established the year after he arrived, and was mainly supported by landscape-painters. He was not, of course, admitted at first into membership, not till 1813, before which time an attempt to establish a rival exhibition had been made. In this Cox joined, the result being very serious to him, an entire failure entailing the seizure and forced sale of all the pictures. At that time the tightest economy was the rule with him, and to save the trifling cost of new strainers or stretching boards, he covered up one picture by another. When these works were prepared for re-sale, fifty years afterwards, some of them yielded picture after picture, peeled off the boards like the waistcoats from the body of the gravedigger in Hamlet!
While lodging near Astley's Circus he married his landlady's daughter, and then took a modest cottage at Dulwich, where he gradually left off scene-painting and became teacher, giving lessons at ten shillings a lesson. This entailed walking to the pupils' homes, and the gift of the paintings done before the pupils. These have since been frequently sold for large sums, but his own price, when lucky enough to sell his best works, was never over a few pounds, and more frequently about fifteen shillings. Sometimes, indeed, he sold them in quantities at two pounds a dozen to be resold to country teachers. By and by he resisted the leaving of the work done to the pupil, but with little advantage to himself, as he saw no end to the accumulation of his own productions, and actually tore them up, and threw them into areas, or pushed them into drains during his trudge homeward. A number of years after he pointed out a particular drain to a friend, and said, "Many a work of mine has gone down that way to the Thames!"
Shortly after he had turned thirty, his stay in London suddenly ended. He was offered the enormous sum of £100 per annum, by a ladies' college in Hereford, and thither he went. This sum he supplemented by teaching in the Hereford grammar school for many years, at six guineas a year, and in other schools at better pay, but still, and up to his fortieth year, we find his prices for pictures from eight to twenty-five shillings. Cox has no history apart from his productions, and these particulars as to his remuneration possess an interest almost dramatic when we contrast them with the enormous sums realized by his later works, and with the "honours and observance, troops of friends," that accompanied old age with him, when settled down in his own home at Harborne, near his native town, where he died on the 7th of June 1859.
Cox's second short residence in London, dating from 1835 to 1840, marks the period of his highest powers. During those years, and for twelve years after, his productiveness kept pace with his mastery, and it would be difficult to overrate the impressiveness of effect, and high feeling, within the narrow range of subject displayed by many of these works. He was now surrounded by dealers, and wealth flowed in upon him. Still he remained the same, a man with few wants and scarcely any enjoyments except those furnished by his brush and his colours. The home at Harborne was a pleasant one, but the approach to the front was useless as the door was kept fastened up, the only entrance being through the garden at the back, and the principal room appropriated as his studio he was content to reach by a narrow stair from the kitchen. Neither in it nor elsewhere was there any luxury or even taste visible: - no bric-à-brac, no objects of interest, few or no books, no pictures except landscapes by his friends. When in winter, after his wife's death, the fire went out, and the cold at last surprised him, he lifted his easel into the little dining-room and began again. A union of his friends was formed in 1855 to procure a portrait of him, which was painted by Sir J. Watson Gordon; and an exhibition of his works was opened in London in 1858 and again another in 1859. This was actually open when the news of his death arrived.
The number of David Cox's works, great and small, is enormous. He produced hundreds annually for perhaps forty-five years. Before his death and for ten years thereafter, their prices were remarkable, as witness the following obtained at auction - "Going to the Mill," £1575; "Old Mill at Bettws-y-Coed," £1575; "Outskirts of a Wood, with Gipsies," £2305; "Peace and War," £3430.
See Hall, Biography of David Cox (1881).
(W. B. Sc.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)