The beach, or sea shore, is a recurring arena in the history of art; from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (c.1486) to Salividor Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931), right up to Antony Gormley’s Another Place (1997); the beach becomes the stage for many of the best-loved and well-known ideas of European art.
Perhaps no other works capture the unique quality and experience of the British beach better than the windswept, shimmering canvasses of David Cox. Unsurpassed in his painterly representation of weather, it is known that Cox made numerous studies of Rhyl beach en route to his beloved Betwys-y-Coed in Snowdonia. Of the works Cox made in Rhyl, three oil paintings survive, all painted in the same year and all in U.K. public collections.
From 1845, David Cox would make regular trips from his home in Harborne to Betwys, travelling through Chester, Rhyl, Abergele or Conway en route. Describing his journey in a letter to his son, Cox remarked: “I find so much to do at every place I go to, I really believe Wales grows more beatiful and romantic every time I see it.” (Solly, 162)
It is interesting that such accomplished oil paintings were made in Rhyl, when Rhyl was little more than a stop-off for Cox on his way to Snowdonia. We do not know for sure what compelled Cox to paint numerous versions of Rhyl beach aside from the general remark quoted earlier, as he makes no specific mention of Rhyl in his letters. We can however note the unique qualities of the beach in Rhyl, being much longer, sandy and open that the beaches of say Abergele or Colwyn Bay — either of which may have also been on Cox’s route to Betwys-y-Coed, yet he did not choose to paint them.
A precursor to Impressionism, David Cox was drawn to the spontaneity of nature — the storms, clouds, wind and rain; he was known to always carry paper with him so he could rapidy sketch extremities in the weather and how they shifted and altered the landscape around him, before finishing the painting in his studio. This is also evident in all three surviving oil paintings of Rhyl sands; perhaps most distinctly in the Birmingham Museum picture, where the stormy, windy sea brings a biting wind to the aptly dressed Victorians at the shore. The clouds to left threaten more of the same, as the gloomy weather descends from the North. In a more subtle fashion, the weather of the Tate and Manchester pictures somehow retain that unpredictability and speedy transformation that has spoiled many British barbecues; whilst at the same time presenting itself as glistening, shimmering light, playfully dancing on the ochre blanket. It is tempting to look for the lure of the mountains within the Rhyl sands pictures, such an accomplished painter of clouds and depth Cox was, but the discernible depth we see within these paintings belong to the weather and to the unique characteristics of the beach— the impulsive build-up of agile, fleeting, shimmering paint forms the rich canvasses of which Monet would become a natural successor.
The beach as a setting offers characteristics unlike any other, due to its vast openness and malleability by the ocean — a trait suitably found at the stretching shore line of Rhyl. Regarding Richard Forster’s meticulous photocopy-like shore line drawings, Michael Bracewell thinks of the beach as “the landscape of transformation… at once a destination and point of farewell.” (Bracewell, 6)
The anthropological romanticism of the sea has been widely represented in Western art, perhaps most famously in the paintings of Casper David Friedrich and later politicised by Antony Gormley, but the idea of ‘transformation’ runs deeper than anthropology and has its foundations in the physical, gravitational shift that takes place daily; for the beach is temporary — it is dragged and pulled into new positions and becomes totally enveloped by the sea, as a beach elsewhere is once again re-created.
The beach for Cox, was as temporary as both the weather and his stop-off in Rhyl — ‘at once a point of destination and point of farewell’.
Solly, N. Neal 1811–1895, Memoir of the life of David Cox, 1875
Bracewell, Michael, Richard Forster, 2008