Historical Portraits Picture Archive

An unfinished portrait miniature of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811), wearing ‘van Dyck’ dress, 1782, after Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) 

Richard Cosway RA (1742-1821)

An unfinished portrait miniature of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811), wearing ‘van Dyck’ dress, 1782, after Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), Richard Cosway
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Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 3 3/8 in (85mm) high
 
Provenance:
Probably the portrait painted in 1782 for Elizabeth Foster, later Duchess of Devonshire ; Probably thence by descent to her step-daughter Henrietta Elizabeth [Harriet] Leveson-Gower [née Lady Henrietta Elizabeth Cavendish], Countess Granville (1785–1862), upon her death in 1824; Probably thence by descent through her husband’s paternal half-brother, George Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland (1788-1833); Thence to his great-grandson, Cromartie Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 4th Duke of Sutherland 1851-1913 (by 1905); Thence by family descent until its sale in 2017
Literature:
G. C. Williamson, ‘Richard Cosway R.A.’, 1905, pl. opposite p.38; p. 113 (when in the possession of the 4th Duke of Sutherland); S. Lloyd, ‘The Cosway inventory of 1820: Listing unpaid commissions and the contents of 20 Stratford Place, Oxford Street, London’, The Volume of the Walpole Society, Vol. 66 (2004), p. 195
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Stephen Lloyd has identified the present work as a sketch by Cosway commissioned by Lady Elizabeth Foster in 1782. This was the same year that Elizabeth, known as ‘Bess’, met William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire and his wife, Georgiana in Bath. She moved in with the couple a few weeks after their meeting and began a relationship which broke with the conventions of polite society. The present work, in its unfinished state, was possibly bought directly from Cosway’s studio, where Bess bought other works and was herself painted. This portrait of the Duke, taken from Reynolds oil painting of 1776 substantiates the strong and immediate attraction felt by all parties in what became the century’s most notorious mènage à trois.

Moving into the couple’s homes at Chatsworth and Devonshire House, London, Bess became the mistress of the Duke and the close friend, and most likely lover, of his wife Georgiana. After Georgiana’s death in 1806, Bess continued her residency, her two illegitimate children (one by the Duke, the other possibly not) having joined the Chatsworth nursery and schoolroom in 1790.

The present portrait appears to have passed from Bess Foster to Georgiana’s second eldest daughter, Henrietta Elizabeth, later Countess Granville (1785–1862). Bess would have been part of the household when Henrietta was born and continued to be a presence in her life until she herself left to marry first Earl Granville in 1809, the same year that her father married Bess. This gift or bequest is perhaps unexpected as the two women appear to have had a somewhat strained relationship, particularly after the death of Georgiana. For three years Bess ran the Devonshire household when Henrietta, as the eldest unmarried daughter, should have taken on this role. The miniature may have been given to Henrietta as a marriage gift, signalling the end of an uneasy phase of their relationship.

The present work was seen by G. C. Williamson, the portrait miniature specialist and advisor to the important collector John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), while still owned by the Sutherland family; ‘Two delightful miniatures are in the possession of the Duke of Sutherland, representing the fifth…Duke of Devonshire…They are light, easy, sketchy works.’

While Cosway’s close relationship with the Duchess of Devonshire provided inspiration for some of his most magnificent and striking portraits, he found the remote and arrogant Duke less amiable. The men were neighbours, with Cosway’s Pall Mall house facing the wall of the Devonshire’s mansion.

The present portrait is taken from Reynolds’s oil portrait, exhibited at the RA in 1776 and probably commissioned by Georgiana [Spencer Collection, Althorp, Northamptonshire]. It was unusual for Cosway to copy another artist’s work, but the two men must have known each other well, not least through the Royal Academy, founded by Reynolds, its first president, in 1768. Cosway has based his portrait on Reynolds’s earlier portrait but has added his own confident characterisation, presumably from his personal knowledge of the Duke’s looks and personality. Unlike his wife, the Duke appears to have been unenthusiastic towards his own portrait and, aside from the likeness in Copley’s group portrait of the Death of Chatham of 1779/81, the 1775/6 Reynolds was the last major painting for which the Duke sat.
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