David Cox was born at Heath Mill Lane, Deritend, on the edge of Birmingham, on 29 April 1783. He was educated at a basic local day school and, from an early age, worked in his father’s smithy. But, encouraged to paint by a cousin, he took drawing lessons from the drawing master, Joseph Barber, and began an apprenticeship with Fieldler, a painter of lockets and trinkets.
When Fieldler committed suicide, in about 1800, Cox became a scenery painter, under James Demaria, at the New Theatre and, in 1804, travelled to London on the promise of similar work. When this came to little, he decided to become a watercolour painter. He was helped in this decision by John Varley who, before 1808, may have given him some lessons; however, he had begun to exhibit landscapes at the Royal Academy of Arts as early as 1805.
In this same period, he made his first journeys into Wales (1805, 1806), in the company of Joseph Barber’s son, Charles. So, at the outset, he established one of his most characteristic sketching grounds.
In 1808, Cox settled into married life with the daughter of his first landlady at 16 Bridge Row, Lambeth; their only child, David junior, would be born in the following year. They rented a cottage on the edge of Dulwich Common, south of London, and he established himself as a drawing master. He soon became a notable contributor to the development of watercolour as a distinguished independent medium. Exhibiting at the Associated Artists in Water Colours from 1809 (until its closure in 1812), he became both member and President in the following year. Then transferring allegiance to the Society of Painters in Water Colours (during its reconstitution as the Society of Painters in Oil and Water-Colours), he rose almost immediately from the position of associate to that of member. He worked for a brief period as drawing master at the Military Staff College, Farnham, Surrey, and published drawing manuals, including A Treatise on Landscape Painting and Effect in Water Colours (1813-14).
In 1814, Cox took up a teaching position at Miss Croucher’s School for Young Ladies at the Gate House, Widmarsh Street, Hereford; while, a year later, he also began to teach at Hereford Grammar School. Notable among the private pupils that he accepted while in Hereford was Joseph Murray Ince, who received lessons in the mid 1820s.
The move to Hereford gave Cox close access to some of his favourite sketching sites, at a time when the London art market was depressed. He travelled in Wales (1818, 1825), and made exploratory visits to Devon (1819) and to the Low Countries in the company of his son, David, who was also becoming a painter (1826). These experiences, coupled to the influence of J M W Turner and Richard Parkes Bonington, helped him to develop his art; he tackled new subjects and employed both a brighter palette and more varied handling. This he sustained on returning to London in 1827, soon after he had illustrated The Hereford Guide. The family then lived at 9 Foxley Cottages (later known as 34 Foxley Road), Kennington.
Cox made two further visits to the Continent: a six- week tour of northern France with his son (1829), and a shorter visit along the north coast of France (1832). Yet more important to the direction of his art were his first visits north to Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire and Ulverston Sands, Lancashire (1834), and to the stately homes of Derbyshire: Haddon Hall (1831) and Hardwick Hall (1838). Ulverston provided him with his highly popular motif of marketeers crossing the sands, while Haddon and Hardwick were used as settings for historical costume genre. He capitalised on this increasing range of subjects by exhibiting at new venues, the revived Birmingham Society of Artists (from 1829) and the Liverpool Academy (from 1831). He also rehearsed his extensive knowledge of Wales, in providing illustrations for Thomas Roscoe’s Wanderings and Excursions in North Wales (1836) and its companion, South Wales (1837).
Late in the 1830s, Cox began to experiment with oil painting, receiving advice and inspiration from William James Müller (1839). In order to devote more time to this new medium, he retired from teaching and moved to Greenfield House, Harborne, near Birmingham (1841). This return to his birthplace gave him easy access to both established sketching spots and to the mountainous vicinity of Bettwys-y-Coed (visited annually between 1844 and 1856). It also brought him close to the provincial markets that showed greater appreciation of his oils than did London. More generally, critics were ambivalent about the boldness of his later work, praising its depth and power, but regretting the loose handling. Its intensity was if anything emphasised, after June 1853, when Cox suffered a stroke. He was represented by a group of watercolours at the Paris Exposition Universelle (1855), and honoured by a well-received retrospective at the German Gallery, Bond Street, London (April 1859). He died in Harborne on 7 June 1859.
Most of his remaining works were sold at Christie’s on 3 and 5 May 1873.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, The Courtauld Gallery, Tate and the V&A; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), Manchester Art Gallery and Tyne & Wear Museums; National Museum Wales (Cardiff); the National Gallery of Scotland (Edinburgh); Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge MA) and Fine Art Museums of San Francisco; and Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (Victoria, Canada).
George Trenchard Cox, David Cox, London: Phoenix House, 1947; Frederic Gordon Roe, The Life and Art of David Cox, 1783-1859, Leigh-on-Sea: F Lewis, 1946; Scott Wilcox, ‘David Cox (b Birmingham, 29 April 1783; d Harborne, 7 June 1859)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 8, pages 83-85; Scott Wilcox, Sun, Wind and Rain: The Art of David Cox, Yale University Press, 2008; Stephen Wildman, ‘Cox, David (1783-1859)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 13, pages 837-841; Stephen Wildman (ed), David Cox, 1783-1859, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1983