The year 1836 is of note because Cox then discovered a special kind of paper, which he used afterwards for so many of his drawings. Getting some sheets by chance (it was an ordinary wrapping paper) he found from the Excise mark that it was manufactured at Dundee, and ordered a ream of it. A paper of similar nature and quality, produced today, is always known as ‘David Cox paper’. [N. Neal] Solly gives the following account:
It was in the year 1836 that Cox first met with the rough Scotch wrapping paper which on trial turned out to be very unabsorbent of colour when used for water-colours, producing a powerful effect. The surface is hard and firm, the paper being made from old linen sailcloth well bleached. Cox obtained the first few sheets by chance at Grosvenor and Chater’s, and on showing it to S. and J. Fuller, their traveller ascertained from the Excise marked stamped upon it, 84B, that it was manufactured at a paper-mill at Dundee, North Britain. There a ream was ordered for Cox, and it was some time before it could be obtained. On its arrival he was rather surprised to find that it weighed two hundred and eighty pounds, and cost eleven pounds. However, Mr. Roberts was willing to share in the purchase, and after some years Cox rather regretted that the quantity ordered had not been larger, as he was never able to obtain the same quality of paper again. . . .Some of Cox’s most powerful studies and drawings after this period were painted on the rough Scotch paper. It gave the texture he required, and suited his peculiar mode of rapid work with a large brush, charged as full as possible with very wet though rich colour. It enabled him to obtain power at once. The paper was very thick, not quite white, with here and there little black or brown specks. In the landscape parts these specks were of no consequence, but they looked out of place in the sky. On one occasion being asked what he did to get rid of them, he replied, ‘ Oh, I just put wings to them, and then they fly away as birds!’
This is supplemented by Hall who constantly watched Cox at work. On one occasion he saw several unusually large and prominent specks in the sky of a drawing, and said: “Whatever will you do with these great specks, Mr. Cox ? I can see them half across the room!” “Specks! Specks!” he replied. “Why, put a couple of wings to them and turn them into birds.” And soon a breeze was whirling and tossing the rooks above the tree-tops. Cox rightly took it as a high compliment when a lady said: “How fond you are of painting wind, Mr. Cox!” [Solly, 80, 81]
The raw material used for the paper varied very much from time to time. The main ingredients were ropes, sail-cloth, bagging and similar waste matter, and it was made on machines long since scrapped.3 The chief features were that the fibres composing the pulp were unbleached, making the paper tend towards a warm grey in tone, and that the surface was rough, and therefore helpful to Cox in his broken colour and high lights. As the paper was only intended by the makers for the purpose of wrapping, little attention was paid to a regular sizing or to the elimination of mineral and other foreign matter which found their way into the pulp; hence the specks. On one point, but an important one, I must differ from Solly, and suggest that he was entirely wrong in stating that the rough Scotch wrapping paper, was ‘very unabsorbent of colour’. The paper, being lightly sized or half-sized, though not so absorbent as blotting paper or so-called ‘plate’ paper, must have absorbed colour much more freely than the highly sized Whatman and other papers which were in vogue. On sized paper, especially on the popular ‘hot-pressed’ paper, unless it is well soaked in water, colour will remain to a large extent on the surface, with a hard edge to the washes. Cox paper, on the other hand, absorbs the colour without first being made damp, and if the washes are put on with a full brush there are no hard edges. Another point is that colour laid on Cox paper in a full wash soaks at once into the paper and dries out much lighter than, without experience, the painter would expect. [196-97]
Hardie, Martin. Water-colour Painting in Britain: The Romantic Period. Ed. Dudley Snelgrove, Jonathan Mayne, and Basil Taylor. London: B. T. Batsford, 1967. II, 190-209.
Solly, N. Neal. Memoir of the Life of David Cox. London 1873; facsimile edition, London 1973..
Last modified 7 May 2017