The young David Cox (1783-1859) - who became a great and famous watercolour artist - on his marriage in 1808 moved to Dulwich Common, and lived there until 1813. His cottage was next to Edward Alleyn’s surviving windmill (dismantled in 1815) something he loved to draw, at times with grazing cows and the mill pond that was still there in the foreground when Pissarro made his celebrated painting of the College. The cottage and mill were on the north-east traffic-light, cross-roads corner of the present Dulwich College grounds, almost exactly where now on those ample lawns you might still catch in summer an Arcadian sight of boys sporting boaters at an idle game of croquet, shadowed by Charles Barry Junior’s main elevation of the College, and iron-fenced from the South Circular traffic that rumbles and fumes on its arterial course. We are to imagine that when Cox lived at Dulwich the ancient North Wood and the green and pleasant pastures of the God’s Gift Estate were intact. Many artists of the day visited and sketched here. William Blake alludes to the Dulwich hills, and surely knew the country village estate well when he lived in Lambeth, or indeed at eight or ten years old, walking from Soho to Peckham Rye, where he saw that tree full of angels and was thrashed for lying by his father when he got home. Blake’s disciple, Samuel Palmer, wrote of the ‘sweet fields’ and ‘mystic glimmer’ of Dulwich in his most beautiful 1824 Sketchbook, calling it the ‘Gate into the world of vision.’
Cox originally came to Southwark from his native Birmingham to paint scenery at the Royal Circus (or Surrey) Theatre in Blackfriars Road; he was also employed as drawing-master to many pupils, that included members of the cultivated London ‘nobility and gentry’, such as Lady Sophia Cecil, Lady Exeter, and Henry Windsor (future Earl of Plymouth). From 1805 he indicated his ambitions as an artist by exhibiting at the Royal Academy. He left Dulwich but would later return to live in South London, in Kennington, from 1827 to 1841.
Cox wrote and illustrated four really influential painting manuals, and the first, the New Drawing Book of Light and Shadow, in Imitation of Indian Ink, was published (anonymously) in 1812 by Rudolph Ackermann at his flourishing ‘Repository of the Arts’ shop in the Strand. Among the twenty-four aquatinted plates, reproducing Cox’s examples for copying, were (among some other South London views) two with the title ‘Dulwich,’ both dated November 1809, and ‘Near Dulwich’ of January 1810. All were engraved by Ackermann’s man ‘Sutherland’ (Thomas) about whom hardly anything seems to be known. The Pond Cottage in ‘Dulwich’ (fig. 2), featuring a fishing child (with a little porringer) in the foreground, was pictured by Cox before Charles Druce, the Manor Estate Steward and Solicitor, redeveloped the site soon after the prints were published and can be located on the map (fig. 1) of 1806. All three aquatints show typical textbook trees, clouds and chiaroscuro of the period, with still or running water; one (‘Dulwich’, fig. 3) has a delightful figure at a well. ‘Near Dulwich’ (fig. 4) shows a house with a remarkable ancient structure. ‘Cottage Views’ and humble poverty played an essential part in the Romantic Movement’s fashionable appetite for the ‘picturesque’ at that time. There is little sign here of the way Cox’s art would develop, with his original perspectives and his wild and windy weather effects that expand the spirits. In 1857, when reviewing exhibitions, Ruskin noted his later work saying, ‘there is not any other landscape which comes near these works of David Cox in simplicity or seriousness.’ Among his fellow water-colour artists who flocked to Wales, Cox (according to Hall’s biography of 1881) became ‘a sort of little king at Betws,… waited on, respected, and beloved by all who came into contact with him. Lord Willoughby might be owner of the soil, but David Cox was lord of the people’s affections.’ These aquatints, are restrained, of course, being fairly early work, but also because they were carefully composed as teaching models of first principles in the art.
One person whom we know copied from them was Charlotte Brontë, when she was thirteen. She reproduced the sepia aquatint, ‘Dulwich’ (fig. 3), and dated it January 5, 1829; what appears to be Indian ink was in fact water-colour wash, as was recommended by the letter-press in Cox’s manual. It is thought that she most likely made this work under her drawing-master, John Bradley, hired to visit Haworth parsonage by her father. This ‘polite recreation’ or ‘accomplishment’ of water-colours, practised by countless oppressed genteel women of her day, actually determined Charlotte Brontë to dedicate herself to becoming an artist; she exhibited works locally, but it was not a success, and she took up writing (with an ostensibly gender-unspecific pseudonym, ‘Currer Bell,’ the forename in homage to her contemporary, the brilliant Yorkshire book collector, Frances Mary Richardson Currer).
When asked by the publishers Smith, Elder in 1848 to contribute her own illustrations to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë declined, writing in response,
I have, in my day, wasted a certain quantity of Bristol board and drawing-paper, crayons and cakes of colour, but when I examine the contents of my portfolio now, it seems as if during the years it has been lying closed some fairy has changed what I once thought sterling coin into dry leaves, and I feel much inclined to consign the whole collection of drawings to the fire.
Readers of that most wonderful novel Villette (1853) might take it for a personal recollection of the author’s early painting in water-colours, making copies from such manuals as Cox’s Dulwich (though strictly an aquatint rather than a mezzotint) in Chapter 35, when Lucy Snowe says:
‘I bent over my desk, drawing - that is copying an elaborate line engraving, tediously working up my copy to the finish of the original, for that was my practical notion of art; and strange to say, I took extreme pleasure in the labour, and could even produce curiously finical Chinese facsimiles of steel or mezzotint plates, things about as valuable as so many achievements in worsted-work, but I thought pretty well of them in those days.’