Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of a young boy, thought to be Sir George Francis Seymour (1787-1870), leaning on an anchor, a ship in the distance , 1789

Richard Cosway RA (1742-1821)

Portrait miniature of a young boy, thought to be Sir George Francis Seymour (1787-1870), leaning on an anchor, a ship in the distance, Richard Cosway
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 89mm (3 ½ in.) high
Private Collection, Devon
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This portrait of a young boy, dated 1789, is the very epitome of Cosway’s mature style. From 1785, Cosway increased the size of his ivories and attempted more ambitious compositions. His understanding of anatomy is revealed here in the complex twist of the boy’s body as he turns to the viewer whilst recently engaged in watching a ship leave for far shores. It is extremely rare for a miniaturist to explore such a complex composition, let alone narrative in a portrait miniature.

Cosway’s dominance of the portrait miniature market at this date is evident through his patronage and his influence on other artists – he trained Andrew and Nathaniel Plimer and also dictated the style of William Wood, Charlotte Jones and Anne Mee. Stephen Lloyd describes him as “undoubtedly the most important, influential, and fashionable portrait miniaturist and draughtsman active during the last two decades of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth.”

Although it has not been possible, at this stage, to identify the sitter with any certainty, he is obviously a member of a prominent seafaring family. One possibility is Sir George Francis Seymour, the eldest son of Vice Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour (1759-1801). Destined for a career in the navy at an early age (his father had joined, at his volition, at the age of eleven) it is just possible in this portrait that Cosway has staged the child bidding farewell to his father at sea. In 1790, his father set sail from the Isle of Wight in command of the ship HMS Canada. Hugh Seymour was great friends with the Prince of Wales and was notorious for his good looks, drinking and gambling. A foray into politics shortly after his marriage did little to stem his wild living or his love of naval duty. His introduction to Cosway may have been through the Prince and he used the artist to portrait several of his children in miniature.

Cosway was born and raised in Tiverton, Devon, where his father was a schoolmaster. His family had some links with the navy – his uncle, Sir William Cosway had attended Admiral Lord Collingwood at the Battle of Trafalgar and one of the benefactors who paid for his artistic training was Dr Samuel Newte, was related to Thomas Newte had made a fortune in the East India Companies service and had strong Tiverton connections.

At the end of the 1780s and early in the 1790s Cosway produced some of his finest portraits of children. These include the 1789 miniature at Althorp of the Devonshires two little girls, the Ladies Georgiana and Henrietta Cavendish, the children of the 1st Earl of Burlington and the ‘Ponsonby’ miniature, recently sold at Christie’s, London. His joyous and relaxed representation of children may have reflected his own happiness – in 1789, his wife Maria was pregnant with their first child.

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