Page last updated at 09:18 GMT, Sunday, 29 March 2009 10:18 UK

Victorian painter's love of Wales

By Steve Duffy
BBC News

Penmaen Bach - a watercolour from David Cox from 1852
Penmaen Bach - a watercolour from David Cox from 1852

The landscape of north Wales, as seen by an early Victorian artist, is a main feature of a new exhibition.

David Cox, a contemporary of Turner, fell in love with the Vale of Clwyd and the village of Betws-y-Coed in Conwy in particular from the 1840s.

"Cox's work has been underappreciated and underestimated," said curator Victoria Osborne.

Described as "varied and exciting", the retrospective show in Cox's home city Birmingham runs until 3 May.

Cox travelled widely in north Wales and in his later life, his paintings of Betws-y-Coed inspired the 19th Century Birmingham School of artists to follow in his footsteps.

David Cox  image: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
April 1783: Born Birmingham, son of a blacksmith
Worked as a theatre scenery painter before moving to London in 1804 and became a teacher, while exhibiting at the Royal Academy
1814-27: Teacher in Hereford
1827-41: Landscape painter in London, also toured parts of Europe
1844-56: Annual visits to north Wales after returning to live in Birmingham
June 1858: Died in Harborne, Birmingham

The exhibition includes several views of the Vale of Clwyd, including a black and white chalk drawing dating from the late 1840s.

There is also a newly conserved oil painting from 1849, which when sold in 1892 was called "the finest pastoral picture in the world.'

Cox began as a commercial artist in London, with his illustrations accompanying travel writer Thomas Roscoe's two volumes of Wanderings and Excursions in Wales.

He started in watercolours and only took up oils comparatively late.

He first visited Wales in 1805 but between 1844 and 1856, he made annual summer visits to Betws-y-Coed.

Curator Victoria Osborne said: "He was not the first artist to be inspired by the Welsh landscape - it had been attracting artists since the 18th Century - there was something about the variety, softness and ruggedness."

He became a familiar figure in Betws-y-Coed, painted the local pub sign and even undertook the 110 mile journey just months after suffering a stroke in June 1853.

Welsh Funeral - image: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Welsh Funeral was painted during David Cox's visit to Betws-y-Coed after the death of a local child

Ms Osborne said: "Betws-y-Coed became something of an artist's colony, not just to artists from Birmingham but from much further afield.

"Artists wanted to share the same kind of scenery but also work with Cox and learn from him - it was like a summer school."

Included in the exhibition is an evocative painting, Welsh Funeral, at the 14th Century St Michael's church, with mourners gathered outside at dusk.

"It depicts the funeral of the daughter of the landlord of the Royal Oak, where Cox used to stay," said Ms Osborne.

"The death of this young girl would have affected the whole village. Particularly as it's sunset, it makes it very atmospheric. Cox was not known for his symbolism but this is very symbolic, with the setting of the sun and little children gathering poppies - symbolic of death."

David Cox's painting captures holidaymakers in Rhyl from the 1850s

Cox was closely associated with showing the varied British climate and a watercolour from nearby moors shows a lone bull in a storm.

Other popular works, dating from the mid 1850s, are his oil paintings of Rhyl Sands, with tiny figures of holidaymakers on the beach dwarfed by the sea and sky.

It it is 50 years since a major exhibition has been held in Wales but the current retrospective makes clear how its landscape inspired some of Cox's finest later work.

"He can be seen alongside Constable and Turner but has been in their shadow for the last 100 years or so," said Ms Osborne.

"One of the reasons for the exhibition is to raise his profile - Cox's work has been underappreciated and underestimated.

"'Hopefully, people will see his work as varied, exciting, with a real breadth to what he did."

Sun, Wind and Rain - The Art of David Cox runs at the Gas Hall at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 3 May. The work of David Cox and the artists' colony is also the inspiration for the Betws-y-Coed Arts Festival, which runs 16-19 April.

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