Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Elizabeth Talbot (née Hoey), Countess of Shrewsbury (d.1847), wearing white dress with lace fichu and gold ribbon belt, her hair powdered 

Richard Cosway RA (1742-1821)

Portrait miniature of Elizabeth Talbot (née Hoey), Countess of Shrewsbury (d.1847), wearing white dress with lace fichu and gold ribbon belt, her hair powdered, Richard Cosway
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 76mm. (3in.) high
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Elizabeth was the daughter of James Hoey of Dublin, Ireland, a printer of books and newspapers by trade. She married, in 1792, Charles Talbot, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury and 15th Earl Waterford (1753-1827). The couple had no children.

This portrait miniature was commissioned five years into the couple’s marriage in 1797. Painted at the zenith of Cosway’s career, it shows the young Countess-to-be simply attired in white robes. It was during the early 1790s that Cosway obtained many grand commissions, working for important aristocratic patrons such as the Earl of Radnor, the Duke of Marlborough and Viscount Courtenay, as well as continuing to accept numerous commissions from the Prince Regent. Dr. Stephen Lloyd describes his work from this period as "[…]subtle, both in characterisation and in execution. He became particularly adept at the combined use of monochrome shading and an increasingly limited application of pigment, especially in the sky backgrounds, which lends these portraits considerable psychological complexity.” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004)

Although Charles Talbot, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury, chose Anne Mee to paint his likeness in miniature (see Sotheby’s, London, 4th July 1983, lot 126), the much vaunted Cosway would have been a natural choice as artist for a portrayal of his future wife. The Shrewsbury family have held a place in history since 1074, when the title was created for Roger de Montgomerie, one of the trusted advisors to William the Conqueror. Elizabeth and Charles resided in the castle at Alton Towers in Staffordshire which had been occupied by the Earls of Shrewsbury since the 15th Century. With meticulous planning and an eye for beauty, Charles set about improving the gardens at Alton Towers, giving them a distinctly artistic feel. He employed garden architects Thomas Allason (1790-1852) and Robert Abrahams (1774-1850) to design an original and innovative landscape, creating the spectacular sight that it remains today. The gardens feature unusual bedding patterns which were designed to enhance the ambiance of the landscape creating a rather wild and romantic atmosphere. At the entrance to the gardens a cenotaph was erected to Charles Talbot with an inscription which read “He Made the Desert Smile”. The gardens feature a Chinese Pagoda Fountain which is an exact copy of the To Ho Pagoda in Canton and was created by encouraging the flow of water from a local spring into the gardens by removing various lakes and pools in the existing gardens. Also featured are the Grand Conservatories which were designed and built by Abrahams and were immense in scale and daring in conception, stretching 300 feet in length and made of iron and plate glass. A harpist was employed by the Earl to delight his family and their guests by filling the garden with music and adding to the general mood evoked by the newly redesigned landscape.

Charles died in 1827, twenty years before his wife Elizabeth who died in 1847 and was succeeded by his nephew, John. John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, continued and completed the landscaping of the valley, importing shrubs and trees some of which he knew would not mature until long after his death.

The present miniature was not included in the great sale of the contents of Alton Towers and was probably gifted to a family member after Elizabeth’s death. The sale took place over the course of a month in 1857, in an auction conducted by Messrs Christie & Mason, after a long running legal dispute contesting the peerage after the death of Bertram Arthur, the 17th Earl of Shrewsbury in 1856. The sale included the entire contents of the estate, from old masters to the coppers in the kitchens.

The Shrewsbury family remained in residence at Alton Towers until 1923, when it was sold to the Tussauds Group, now Merlin Entertainments. Today, the landscaped gardens remain, but the land also houses the UK's number one paid for tourist attraction (which includes a ride called ‘the Hex’, named after a curse placed by a beggarwoman on the 15th Earl). The Shrewsbury family seat is now at Wanfield Hall in Staffordshire.
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