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Heritage: Richard Cosway - Son of Tiverton

PUBLISHED: 11:24 15 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:09 20 February 2013

Richard Cosway, engraving by F Bartolozzi, stipple, 1784
Lunardi became a huge celebrity in 1784 when he made the first hot air balloon flight in England. Cosway has presented Lunardi as if in flight, with windswept hair and billowing clouds behind.

Richard Cosway, engraving by F Bartolozzi, stipple, 1784 Lunardi became a huge celebrity in 1784 when he made the first hot air balloon flight in England. Cosway has presented Lunardi as if in flight, with windswept hair and billowing clouds behind.

A collection of prints by flamboyant portrait artist and miniaturist Richard Cosway is being exhibited in the town of his birth. By Pippa Griffith

It was portraits and miniatures of the rich and famous that made Richard Cosgrave more famous than Gainsborough in his day. Tiverton museums new exhibition celebrates the life and work of the 18th-century artist who was born and spent his early years in the town. It is the first exhibition on Cosway since those held by the National Portrait Galleries in London and Edinburgh in 1995/6. It focuses on a collection of original prints made from Cosways portrait paintings.


Richard and his wife Maria Hadfield, both successful artists, made a glamorous couple. They established a salon in London that became the meeting-place for prominent artists, musicians, actors, celebrities and politicians.


We shall never see his like again


Cosways talent was in high demand in the city his most important patron was the future King George IV, who appointed Cosway Principal Painter to the Prince of Wales in 1785. Cosway produced large scale paintings to hang in the drawing rooms of grand houses, but he was also an excellent painter of miniature portraits, which were mostly watercolour on ivory. These can be found in national museum collections such as the V&A and the Royal Collection at Windsor, as well as in some of our regional museums at Exeter and Plymouth.


Cosways reputation with the wider public was established by the production of prints, which enabled the general public to acquire affordable works of art. It is some of these prints, made from Cosways drawings and oil paintings by the best engravers of the day, which are the focus of this exhibition.


Richard was baptised in the parish church of Oakford in November 1742; his father was known to be a school master, and research for this exhibition has revealed that Richard Cosway senior taught at the towns Charity School. The Cosway ancestors had come to Devon to escape religious persecution in the Netherlands in the 16th century. The family had worked in the cloth trade in the Low Countries and were drawn to Englands flourishing wool trade. At that time, Tiverton was a prosperous town whose wealth came directly from the wool trade.


Richards style of dressing and his eccentricities became more prominent as he grew older


Richard Cosways artistic talent was evident from early on he won first prize in 1755 at a Royal Society of Arts competition for boys and girls under the age of 14. He continued to win prizes for his work: in 1760, aged 17, he won 30 guineas a considerable sum corresponding to the annual wage of an agricultural worker.


In 1781, aged 38, Cosway married Maria Hadfield, who was then aged 20. Maria, who had grown up in Florence, was a talented artist, musician and composer, and was considered to be a great beauty. The marriage was thought to be one of convenience Richard was 18 years her senior, a well-known libertine who was repeatedly unfaithful, and considered unattractive (he was commonly described as resembling a monkey).
On a trip to Paris, Maria met Thomas Jefferson, then the American ambassador to France. Over the course of the six weeks, Jefferson developed a romantic attachment to Maria as they spent each day together, but she returned to her husband in London.


Maria exhibited many times at the Royal Academy, but Richard forbade her from selling her work, believing it to be unseemly for a lady in her social position.


The Cosways lived in great style at Schomberg House in Pall Mall, close to the Prince of Wales palace, Carlton House. They entertained everybody who was anybody the royal princes were regular guests; the diarist James Boswell and Hannah Cowley, the Tiverton-born playwright, attended their functions, as did an assortment of nobility, actresses, musicians and composers. The walls of Schomberg House were covered with works by old masters, including four large cartoons for tapestries, which Cosgrave later gave to Louis XV1 of France.


Portraits of many of these people, including one of Tiverton-born poet and playwright Hannah Cowley, can be seen at Tiverton museums exhibition. A fragment of her tombstone is also on display there. The Cosways were well known for hosting parties at Schomberg House, one of which is said to have caused the first traffic jam in London as carriages queued up outside the house.


After the death of their only child Louisa in 1796, the Cosways had many long periods of separation. Maria eventually returned to Europe, where she founded a school in Lyon, which she ran from 1803 to 1809. She then moved to Lodi in northern Italy, where she started a school for girls in the Lodi convent. Richards style of dressing and his eccentricities became more prominent as he grew older, but as the essayist William Hazlitt noted: We shall never see his like again.


In 1817, Maria returned to London to be reunited with Richard, who had suffered two strokes. She cared for him until his death four years later. He continued working right up until a few weeks before he died. Assisted by her close friend Sir John Soane, Maria later auctioned Richards art collection, with the proceeds going towards her school in Lodi. She returned to the school, where she died 17 years later.
By Pippa Griffith


The prints that form the temporary exhibition at Tiverton Museum are part of a collection formed by Commander Gerald Barnett (author of Richard and Maria Cosway, A Biography, published by Westcountry Books in 1995). These prints have been generously presented by Commander Barnett to Tiverton Museum.


Richard Cosway Son of Tiverton runs from 14 October to 30 November 2010, at Tiverton Museum of Mid Devon Life. 01884 256 295, www.tivertonmuseum.org.uk

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