Topographical painter, author and army officer born in New York, USA. Resident of England and Canada he visited NSW en route between the two. Dursing his time in the army he also served at Malta, Copenhagen, the Cape of Good Hope and the East Indies.
topographical painter, author and army officer, was born in New York, son of a Royal Artillery officer serving in the lower colonies during the American War of Independence. On 19 March 1793 he entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, England, where he received drawing lessons from the eminent topographical artist Paul Sandby. Commissioned second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in 1795, Cockburn served at Malta, Copenhagen, the Cape of Good Hope and the East Indies, sketching incessantly. He published several illustrated accounts of the various places he visited, including Malta and Sicily (1811), Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar (1815, with 30 colour plates), Swiss Scenery (1820, with 62 plates), Views To Illustrate the Simplon Route (1822) and Views of the Valley of Aosta (1822).
From about 1826 to August 1832 Cockburn was stationed in Canada, mainly at Quebec, as artillery officer in the second battalion of the 60th Regiment with the rank of lieutenant colonel. His official duties were light and allowed him time to make numerous watercolours of Quebec, the St Lawrence River, Lake Ontario and the Passaic River in New Jersey. He published Quebec and its Environs: Being a Picturesque Guide to the Stranger in 1831 and a folio of prints of Niagara and Quebec in 1833.
Said to have used a camera lucida to ensure accuracy, Cockburn painted with a broad technique and a light palette. Lady Aylmer, the governor’s wife, called him 'one of the most accurate and Elegant Artists I have ever met’. As Reid points out, his field sketches are mere notations, stiff and awkward, but the large watercolours worked up from these are often extremely accomplished. He is particularly admired in Canada for his lively topographical urban scenes, particularly Corpus Christi Procession, Quebec (1830, Ontario Museum), the rural watercolours, such as Pont éPinceau, Québec (1831, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa), being more conventional.
Although well represented in Canadian collections, Cockburn has had but a single (unsigned) Australian view attributed to him—a large, competent watercolour of the convict stockade near Hartley, New South Wales, on the Great Western Road over the Blue Mountains titled The Fort on the Cox’s River near Bathurst (formerly Raven Collection; photograph, Mitchell Library). Its architecture and road-making activities indicate a date of 1837-38, at which time Cockburn had left Canada and was en route for England. Convict rural quarters were seldom depicted contemporaneously in colonial New South Wales, especially in large, picturesque watercolours, so this view, which shows the complex of wooden buildings on a tongue of land above the river-crossing in detail, is quite exceptional. Beyond the stockade a distant gang of convicts under escort can be seen leaving for the day’s work (probably road-making), while a red-coated sentry is prominent in the foreground. The feathery style and the light greeny-ochre and pale blue tones seem typical enough of Cockburn, and in marked contrast to Conrad Martens , the major watercolourist working in New South Wales at the time.
Cockburn was back in England by October 1838, when he took up the post of director of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, remaining in this position until he retired on 31 December 1846. Major-General Cockburn died at his residence on Woolwich Common on 18 March 1847. Although New South Wales seems an excessively lengthy detour on a voyage from Toronto to London, it is not inconsistent with the legendary energy and enterprise of this indefatigable traveller in search of the picturesque.