Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cosway, Richard
COSWAY, RICHARD (1740–1821), painter in water-colour, oil, and miniature, was born at Tiverton, Devonshire, in 1740. His father was master of the public school there, but the son received his first education at a school in Okeford, near Bampton, and very early displayed a strong disposition to the art of painting. He was therefore sent to London, at the expense chiefly of his uncle, who had been mayor of Tiverton, and his earliest patron, one Oliver Peard. He now studied under Thomas Hudson, Sir Joshua Reynolds's master, and afterwards joined William Shipley's academy of drawing in the Strand. John Thomas Smith, in ‘Nollekens and his Times’ (London, 1828), ii. 392, relates that Cosway when a boy was noticed by Mr. Shipley, who took him to wait upon the students and carry in the tea and coffee which the housekeeper was allowed to provide, and for which she charged threepence per head. The students, among whom were Nollekens and Smith's father, good-temperedly gave ‘Dick’ instructions in drawing, and advised him to try for a prize in the Society of Arts, where, in 1755, he obtained a premium of 5l. 5s. for a drawing. In 1757 he gained another premium of 4l. 4s., in 1758 one of 4l. 4s., in 1759 a premium of 2l. 2s., and in 1760 another of 10l. 10s. He also excelled as a draughtsman from the antique, in the Duke of Richmond's gallery in Privy Garden, Whitehall. After the expiration of his engagement with Shipley, Cosway began to teach in Parr's drawing school and to execute heads for shops, besides fancy miniatures, not always chaste, and used for lids of snuff-boxes. From the money he earned and from the gaiety of the company he kept Cosway rose ‘from one of the dirtiest boys to one of the smartest men.’ Smith tells us how he saw him at the elder Christie's picture sales, full dressed in his sword and bag, with a small three-cornered hat on the top of his powdered toupé and a mulberry silk coat, profusely embroidered with scarlet strawberries. In addition to his artistic works, which he disposed of readily, Cosway increased considerably his income by dealing in old pictures.
In 1766 he became a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists, and in 1769 a student at the Royal Academy. At this period he resided in Orchard Street, Portman Square. His talent and great reputation gained him an early admission to the Academy, for he was elected an associate in 1770, and a full academician in 1771. He exhibited at the Royal Academy, somewhat irregularly, forty-five miniatures. In 1781 he married Maria Hadfield, a native of Italy, distinguished for her talents and beauty [see Cosway, Maria], and now resided at No. 4 Berkeley Street, Berkeley Square, and three years later in Pall Mall, in the centre portion of the house built for the Duke of Schomberg. Hence he moved to a residence at the corner of Stratford Place, Oxford Street, in what was then considered one of the best London mansions (see Crace Collection, department of prints and drawings, British Museum, portfolio xxix. plates 95, 96; and Ackermann, Repository of Arts, 1 March 1815). He left his house on account of some satirical verses referring to the sculptured lions (still in existence) near his doorway:
When a man to a fair for a show brings a lion,
'Tis usual a monkey the sign-post to tie on;
But here the old custom reversed is seen,
For the lion's without, and the monkey's within.
The lines, posted on his door, are supposed to have been composed by Peter Pindar (Dr. Wolcott). Cosway moved to No. 20 in the same street. Here he practised his art with immense success, and fashionable people were in the habit of making his studio a morning lounge. The house was magnificently furnished; it contained, moreover, a large collection of paintings, principally by masters of Dutch and Flemish schools, majolica, arms, prints, drawings, &c. The Prince of Wales's carriage was frequently seen at the door, Cosway having painted a remarkable miniature engraved by John Condé, of Mrs. Fitzherbert afterwards. His professional engagements at Carlton House were, it is said, so frequent that when residing in Pall Mall, Cosway had a private communication with Carlton Palace Gardens. He was appointed principal painter to his royal highness the Prince of Wales, and it was generally believed among artists that Cosway received from his royal patron in one year no less a sum than 10,000l. Owing to his wife's delicate health they went to Paris, where, at the instance of the Duchess of Devonshire, he painted the Duchess of Orleans and family and the Duchess of Polignac. They also visited Flanders together, but afterwards separated for some considerable time. During his latter years he endured great physical pain. Twice he was stricken with paralysis, and on 4 July 1821, when living at Edgware, he died suddenly while taking an airing in the carriage with his old friend Miss Udney. Cosway often expressed a wish to be buried either in St. Paul's or near Rubens at Antwerp, but he lies in the vault, north wall, of Marylebone Church, where a monument, by R. Westmacott, was erected to his memory by his widow. The sculpture (see a print by Charles Picart, measuring 14 in. by 11½ in.) represents a medallion of the artist in right profile, surrounded by three figures of genii, emblematic of art, taste, and genius, with some verses by his brother-in-law, William Coombe (‘Dr. Syntax’).
In person Cosway was unlike his numerous portraits by himself, which have usually the air of a cavalier of romance. He occasionally painted in oil with a strong predilection for Correggio, and one of these productions he presented to his parish church of Tiverton. He showed, in his later years, a decided tendency towards mysticism, being a Swedenborgian and a strong believer in animal magnetism. He often alluded to mysterious conversations with the Virgin Mary, with Dante, and Apelles. His most popular portraits were small whole-length figures, executed in a somewhat sketchy style, with the exception of the head and hands, which were highly finished. He had a beautiful and clever daughter, Louisa Paolina Angelica. At the age of five her portrait, after Cosway, was engraved by Anthony Cardon. She possessed a natural taste for drawing and music, and was set by her father to study Hebrew when ten years old, in order that she might read the Bible in the original. She died young. His own portraits have been engraved by J. Clarke, Mariano Bovi, William Daniell, and R. Thew. About 1770 Dighton drew a caricature of Cosway, afterwards engraved by Richard Earlom in mezzotint, and published by Bowles and Carver. It is called ‘The Macaroni Painter, or Billy Dimple sitting for his Picture’ (see Catalogue of Satirical Prints in the British Museum, 1883, iv. 712, No. 4520). There is in the National Portrait Gallery a miniature of himself in water colours painted by himself (4 in. by 3 in.). In the British Museum there are several, but slight, sketches by his hand, and at Blenheim three portraits, viz. George Spencer Churchill, fourth duke of Marlborough, George, fifth duke of Marlborough, and his brother, Lord Charles S. Churchill, when boys, in fancy costume, and a fancy portrait of Lady Caroline Spencer Churchill, daughter of George, fourth duke. To these may be added the following compositions, portraits, &c., engraved in mezzotint: a portrait of James Hutton, engraved by J. R. Smith; ‘Wisdom directing Beauty and Virtue to Sacrifice at the Altar of Diana,’ engraved by J. R. Smith. The figures in this picture are portraits of Lady Margaret Corry, Lady Harriet Butler, and Juliana, countess of Carrick; ‘Sigismond,’ engraved by Blackmoore; Lady Hume, by V. Green; Miss Elliot, in the character of Minerva, by I. Saunders; ‘Love,’ by I. G. Fluck; and ‘Europa,’ by J. R. Smith. In the stipple manner: ‘Infancy,’ by C. White; ‘The Royal Infant,’ by F. Bartolozzi; Caroline, Princess of Wales, and the Princess Charlotte, by F. Bartolozzi; the Right Honourable Lady Anna Maria Stanhope, by A. Cardon; Madame Récamier, by A. Cardon; Major-general R. C. Ferguson, M.P., by A. Cardon; Frederick, duke of York, by G. Hadfield; George, prince of Wales, by J. Condé; and others engraved by I. S. Agar, I. Godefroy, G. Minasi, W. Sharp, L. Salliar, C. Townley, &c. A book entitled ‘A Miscellaneous Metaphysical Essay; or, an Hypothesis concerning the Formation and Generation of Spiritual and Material Beings, &c. By an Impartial Inquirer after Truth,’ London, 1748, 8vo, is erroneously ascribed to Cosway in the British Museum Library Catalogue. The sale of his collection of drawings and prints took place at Stanley's 14 Feb. (eight days) 1822. He stamped these drawings with the letters ‘C. R.’ (see Fagan, Collectors' Marks, London, 1883, 8vo, No. 119).
[Art Journal, 1858, p. 268; Cunningham's Lives of British Painters, &c., London, 1833, 8vo, vi. 1; manuscript notes and catalogues in the British Museum.]