Richard Cosway (Devon 1742 - London 1821)

Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter (1752-1809), Three-Quarter-Length, in a White Dress with a Chiffon Shawl, in a Landscape

oil on canvas
127.7 x 102.3 cm (50¼ x 40¼ in)

Provenance: Lady Leontine Sassoon, The Manor House, Upton Grey, Hampshire;
with Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd., London;
Anonymous sale, Christie's, London, 18 November 1983, lot 45;
Private collection, The Manor House, Upton Grey, Hampshire.

Literature: Gerald Barnett, Richard and Maria Cosway: A Biography (Westcountry Books,1995), p.9 and illustrated in colour, plate X.

Richard Cosway’s Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter (1752-1809), Three-Quarter-Length, in a White Dress with a Chiffon Shawl, in a Landscape gives the impression of a woman supremely confident in her appearance. Lady Almeria was the lady-in-waiting to Maria Walpole, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1736-1807). The Duchess was the granddaughter of Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), considered to be the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, although the term itself was not officially recognised until 1905.

The Duchess was married to George III’s (1738-1820) brother, Prince William Henry, the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1743-1805) but as their marriage deteriorated Lady Almeria’s great beauty attracted the Duke’s attention and in 1782 she gave birth to his daughter, Louisa Maria La Coast (1782-1835) who was brought up by her father’s steward on a farm at Hampton Court. During the 1780s, the Duke and Duchess toured the continent, on account of their mounting debts and unpopularity at court since their clandestine marriage. They were accompanied by Lady Almeria. Such was her fashionable status that the European Magazine and British Review, a publication which, according to its subtitle, was dedicated to bringing to its readers ‘the Literature, History, Politics, Arts, Manners, and Amusements of the Age’, kept their readers informed of her activities. In December 1783, for instance, it states that ‘Lady Almeria Carpenter, while in Italy rides continually for her health. She took over with her an English horse, that could carry double’.¹ This concern with the minutiae of her life reveals the fascination that this beautiful and enchanting woman provoked among London society and beyond. On their return to England, Lady Almeria continued to live with the Duke and Duchess in Gloucester House where, according to Sir Nathaniel Wraxall (1751-1831), ‘the Duchess remained indeed its nominal mistress, but Lady Almeria its ornament and its pride’.²

In the present work, painted in c.1780, Lady Almeria wears a white dress with a shimmering shawl wrapped around her waist and shoulders.³ The dress, whilst following the line of late eighteenth-century fashion, has a distinctly classical air. The restrained simplicity of her garments and the absence of any accessories are more a means of producing a timeless image than a reflection of every day dress from that era. Lady Almeria’s hair is powdered and gathered in curls with a thick blue ribbon, framing her naturally fresh and rosy face. The greatest emphasis is on the details of her face, which Cosway was particularly adept at painting with his extensive experience as a miniaturist.

Lady Almeria was the eldest daughter of George Carpenter, 1st Earl of Tyrconnel (1723-1762) and she was famed for her beauty, becoming one of the leading figures in fashionable society. Wraxall, author, historian and Member of Parliament, described her as ‘one of the most beautiful women of her time’ and she was painted by a number of the leading portraitists of her age, including Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1793) and John Hoppner (1758-1810).⁴ A comparable image is James Watson’s (c.1740-1790) Lady Almeria Carpenter, etched after Reynolds’ portrait. As in Cosway’s painting, the focus of the work is the beauty and refinement of the sitter. Lady Almeria’s delicate features and smooth skin figure in both works, as do her style and grace. This focus on the sitter’s appearance is accentuated in Watson’s image as we view her in profile but as a result, the image lacks something of the psychological depth that the direct and smiling stare brings to Cosway’s portrait. The engraving does depict a more detailed costume than Cosway’s elegant classical one, and this chimes in with Lady Almeria’s status as ‘a famous leader of fashion’.⁵

Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter is comparable to many of the portraits that Cosway so skilfully depicted including the Royal Collection’s Elizabeth Milbanke, Viscountess Melbourne (1752-1818). Like Lady Almeria, the Viscountess was one of the most noteworthy figures in fashionable society, ‘her every move recorded in the London newspapers’.⁶ Both portraits present idealised images of young women, where the focus is on their beauty, class and style. Although the Viscountess turns her head, which allows the viewer to see her profile, a slight smile plays across her face, animating the sitter with a similar technique used by Cosway in Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter. Whereas Lady Almeria is portrayed in a simple, elegant and almost timeless costume, Viscountess Melbourne is portrayed in overtly luxurious and fashionable attire. It is clear, however, that Cosway delighted in the depiction of a variety of textures, from the gauze chiffon shawl in the present work, to the golden silk that the Viscountess wears. In both works, Cosway draws attention to these textures by having his sitters run them through their fingers. The background of heavy red curtain and landscape in the Royal Collection’s work is similar to the background in the present work, in that it serves only as a setting for the figures, and does nothing to detract from the focused portrayal of the sitters.

Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter and Elizabeth Milbanke, Viscountess Melbourne (1752-1818) are in fact fairly unusual examples of Cosway’s work because they are large three-quarter-length depictions; Cosway usually painted miniatures such as the Royal Collection’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana was another famous beauty and socialite, whom Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as ‘Splendour’s fondly fostered child’.⁷ Although there is a vast difference in the size of the two works, there are significant similarities between the miniature and the present work. The Duchess of Devonshire confidently meets the gaze of the viewer in the same way as Lady Almeria, and she too wears the same confident smile. Due to its small size the focus of the portrait of the Duchess is on her appearance and this is of course very much a feature of the present work. The soft blue sky of the background does not detract the focus from the sitter and Cosway has depicted enough of her costume and hairstyle to clearly indicate that this lady is fashionable and rich, in addition to being extremely beautiful. The palette of both works is restricted, a feature of much of Cosway’s work. The techniques used in his miniatures, which brought him so much success and the patronage of some of Britain’s most important figures, were also used by Cosway in his larger portraits. Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter displays the charming lightness of handling and luminosity that can be found in his best work.

As a youth Cosway demonstrated precocious talent and studied under Thomas Hudson (?1701-1779), who also taught Reynolds, and at Shipley’s Drawing School in the Strand, where he won several prizes. Having entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1769 he became a Royal Academician two years later. In 1781 he married the Anglo-Florentine artist, Maria Hadfield (1759-1828) and they established a salon at their house in Berkeley Street. In 1784, they moved to Schomberg House, Pall Mall, which became the epicentre of fashionable London society. The Cosways were a glamorous and fascinating pair and their preoccupation with taste and fashion, which is reflected in their paintings, was typical of fashionable society at the turn of the century.

In 1785 Cosway was appointed Painter to the Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762-1830) and started to sign many of his works primarius pictor serenissimi Walliae Principis (‘principal painter to his most serene Prince of Wales’). Cosway worked extensively for the Prince, executing many likenesses of him, his daughter Princess Charlotte (1796-1817) and the most noteworthy of his mistresses, Maria Fitzherbert (1756-1837). It may have been through the Prince of Wales’ patronage that Cosway came to paint his brother’s mistress, Lady Almeria Carpenter. He was one of the first artists to appreciate the importance of celebrity in the crowded London art market, dressing and speaking in an extravagant manner at odds with his small physical stature.⁸ He was eagerly sought after and painted many of the most fashionable members of contemporary society.

Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter has a distinguished provenance, being once owned by Lady Leontine Sassoon (1864-1955), the widow of the Sir Edward Elias Sassoon, 2nd Baronet of Bombay (1853-1924). After her husband’s death Lady Leontine lived in 17 Belgrave Square and kept open house for the troops in the Second World War and also allowed the property to be used as a supply depot for the Red Cross. Lady Leontine left in 1942 but retained the tenancy of the house until she died aged over ninety in 1955.

¹ The European Magazine, and London Review, 1783, Philological Society of London, p. 407.
² The Historical and the Posthumous Memoirs of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall 1772 to 1784, ed. Wheatley, H.B., part V, (Bickers and Son, London, 1884), p. 201.
³ Barnett, G. Richard and Maria Cosway: A Biography (Westcountry Books,1995), p.9.
⁵ Ashdown, C., British Costume from Earliest Times to 1820, (Courier Dover Publications, 2001), p. 824.
Byron’s “Corbeau Blanc”: The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne, ed. Jonathan David Gross, (Texas A&M University Press), 1998, p. 1.
⁷ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Ode to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’ in The Poetical Works of S. T. Coleridge, (William Pickering, 1834), vol i, p. 241.
⁸ See Aronson, J. and Wieseman, M.E., Perfect Likeness; Europena and American Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum, (Yale University Press, 2006), p. 22.