Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Edward Johnston, wearing blue coat with pale grey collar, white waistcoat and tied cravat, his hair powdered, 1796 

Richard Cosway RA (1742-1821)

Portrait miniature of Edward Johnston, wearing blue coat with pale grey collar, white waistcoat and tied cravat, his hair powdered, 1796, Richard Cosway
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 2 in ( 5.1 cm) high
English Private Collection.
Gold frame, the reverse with aperture glazed to reveal plaited brown hair, the outer gold border engraved and inscribed Edward Johnston Esq. 1785 Done by Cosway Ob.Jan 18th 1796 sincerely lamented, the whole in red leather travelling case .

Cosway was one of the leading portrait miniature painters of the eighteenth century, who, along with a handful of competitors, fed the hunger for the virtuoso grandeur which so typified the Regency period.

Born in Devon, the son of a headmaster was attracted to art from an early age and by the age of twelve was working in London under Thomas Hudson whilst learning how to draw at William Shipley’s school. Cosway first exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1760 and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1769, exhibiting there 1770-1806. Cosway was made Miniature Painter to the Prince of Wales in around 1786, a position he maintained until the Prince became Regent in 1811.

Perhaps the most characteristic feature of Cosway’s work is the captivating level of luminosity he manages to achieve. Throughout his career Cosway mastered the use of transparent pigments, which when applied onto thin ivory, exploited the natural glow of the support as seen in the present work. Another distinguishable feature of Cosway’s work is the sky background, which was later adopted by competitors such as Andrew Plimer (1763-1837), who, along with brother Nathaniel, Cosway taught to paint.

The present work dates, according to an inscription on the reverse, to 1785, and was painted at a time when Cosway very much dominated the market for portrait miniatures. The period 1785-1806 is regarded by Foskett as his best period of work and Cosway’s oeuvre around this time can be found filled with portraits of various English and French aristocrats, perhaps one of the best examples being his portrait of the Prince of Wales circa 1793 [Royal Collection]. Although no information can be gleaned from the life of Edward Johnston, he must have been quite affluent given the cost of a sitting to Cosway around this time.

The condition of the miniature, most likely due to its preservation in a case, is quite remarkable with no fading with the original warm, rosy glow of the sitter’s complexion still remaining. The dark blue jacket likewise retains its rich colour emphasising the intended contrast with the white collar and stock which a vast majority of faded works by Cosway have lost.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.