Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of a Young Boy, thought to be George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758 –1834) 

Richard Cosway RA (1742-1821)

Portrait miniature of a Young Boy, thought to be George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758 –1834), Richard Cosway
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
1.3 inches Oval, 33mm. high
The Property of a Lady, Bonhams, London, April 27 2005, lot 44 (the sitter unidentified)
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Original gold bracelet clasp frame set with diamonds, a later (probably 19th century) reverse with brooch clasp, engraved with the cipher ‘S’, an Earl’s coronet suspended above.

This beautiful and enigmatic miniature dates to the earliest part of Cosway’s career, when he was painting on smaller pieces of ivory with great attention to detail. His work from this period is often more delicate and intricate than his miniatures after 1785, when he worked on larger ivories with great panache.

The sitter has recently been identified as George John, 2nd Earl Spencer, the brother of Georgiana, later Duchess of Devonshire. This portrait of the young George was probably painted when he was about seven or eight years old and is close in date to a group portrait of the Spencer children painted by Angelica Kauffmann, R.A. (1741-1807). When Kauffmann moved to London in 1766, the Spencer family were among her first patrons. In this group painting, George is shown in fashionable Van Dyck dress, similar to that worn in the miniature, alongside his sisters Georgiana and Henrietta.

George John was styled as Viscount Spencer of Althorp from 1765 to 1783. In October 1783, he succeeded to the title of 2nd Earl Spencer. The later reverse on this miniature shows the typical Spencer ‘S’ cipher, the Earl’s coronet dating the engraving to after 1783.

The size and setting of the miniature suggest that this was a personal commission, probably worn by the sitter’s mother and possibly much treasured after his departure to be schooled at Harrow in 1770.

Unlike his sister, contemporaries commented more frequently on his character than on his looks. In 1780, Mary Delany wrote of him; ‘never handsome, but always agreeable, and a fine young man’. Like his sister, he was interested and involved in politics, but his greatest achievements came from his office as First Lord of the Admiralty (December 1795 – February 1801). It was under his rule, during war with France that the battles of St. Vincent and Camperdown were won.

We are indebted to Althorp for assisting with the identification of the sitter.
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