Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A portrait drawing of the actress Mary Robinson [nče Derby], also known as ‘Perdita’ (1756/1758?-1800), seated in a theatre box, wearing plumed hat, a fan in her hand 

Richard Cosway RA (1742-1821)

A portrait drawing of the actress Mary Robinson [nče Derby], also known as ‘Perdita’ (1756/1758?-1800), seated in a theatre box, wearing plumed hat, a fan in her hand, Richard Cosway
Graphite on paper, with watercolour for the face
18th Century
Rectangular, 4 3/8 in (11.2 cm) high
Private Collection
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Mary Robinson was born to a sea captain and merchant, Nicholas Derby and his wife Hester Vanacott in Bristol. After a pampered early childhood, her father lost a great deal of the family money through a poor investment and her parents separated in 1768. Mary’s education was continued in London until she was introduced to Thomas Hull and David Garrick with the intention of a career on the stage.

Mary’s stage career was halted, however, by her marriage to Thomas Robinson (fl.1750-1802) in 1773. Her marriage, although seemingly an unhappy match, introduced her to fashionable society. While her husband fell deeply into debt, she gave birth to a daughter. In 1775 her husband was arrested and she accompanied him to Fleet prison. Upon his release, she looked to the stage for their future income, first starring as Juliet at Drury Lane in December 1776 to rapturous reviews. Excelling in light, comedy roles, she became one of the most feted stage actresses of her generation. Her patron, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire supported both her acting and her writing.

Mary’s fame also attracted public interest in her private life, particularly when she began a relationship with the Prince of Wales. Promised wealth by her new lover, she began a life of great extravagance, which would ultimately lead to her poverty later in life. As she built debt she also became more notorious, after her affair with the prince ended she went to Paris where Marie Antoinette expressed a wish to meet with her. On returning to London, she began an affair with Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Her social life was chronicled by the daily newspapers but was curtailed by ill health and increasing debt. She continued to write but her poems and novels, always strongly feminist, were not always well-received. She died, when barely into her forties, in 1800, of a ‘dropsy in the chest’.

Few women of the age were more frequently caricatured and painted. Mary was portrayed in oils by Thomas Gainsborough (Wallace Collection), George Romney (Wallace Collection) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (Waddesdon Manor and Wallace Collection). This intimate drawing captures Mary off-guard, relaxed but gently teasing with her fan. It relates most closely in date with the painting of her by John Hoppner of 1782 (Chawton House Library) and a sketch by or after Sir Joshua Reynolds of the same date (National Portrait Gallery 5264). If executed circa 1782, this sketch also shows her observing rather than participating on the stage, as her last official performance was at Drury Lane Theatre in 1780. It may also portray her prior to the paralytic stroke, which she suffered in the summer of 1783. Both Maria and Richard Cosway knew Mary Robinson well. They shared the same social circles and enjoyed a long correspondence, as the writer Williamson states in his biography ‘In his [Cosway’s] position as a favourite with the Prince he was the recipient of some strange confidences. He painted the portraits of both Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Abington, and was consulted by both ladies upon private matters which concerned them.’. She sat for Cosway many times, with nine portraits recorded by George C. Williamson in his Index of Sitters.

Cosway’s pencil sketches, as the art historian Dr. Stephen Lloyd asserts, were executed ‘for himself or intended as gifts’. The Cosways were regular theatre-goers and counted many great stage personalities as their patrons and friends. This portrait of Mary Robinson is one of many formal and informal portraits taken of such famous faces. The size of this particular drawing would suggest that it was originally part of a sketchbook, drawn quickly just prior to the performance from the opposite side of the theatre.
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