Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Lord Chancellor William Cowper (d. 1723) 1706

Jonathan Richardson 

Portrait of Lord Chancellor William Cowper (d. 1723), Jonathan Richardson
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30x25 inches 76.3 x 63.5 cm
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This half-length portrait of Lord Chancellor William Cowper originates from Richardson's full-length of 1706 that was formerly in the collection of Lady Desborough at Panshanger House in Hertfordshire and now hangs at Firle in Sussex. It was common practice for an artist to produce full, three quarter-length and bust sized versions of the same sitting for reasons of simple economics, and Richardson's hand is very much in evidence in this work. There is an authority in the treatment of the sitter's wig, the elegantly embroidered frogging of his robes of office and subtle flesh tones that is closely compatible with both the primary and particularly the second, three quarter-length variant of the portrait.

Richardson has been described as ''the ablest of the painters who came to prominence during the last decade of Kneller's life and who flourished after his death''(1). A pupil of Riley, he went on to teach both Knapton and Hudson, and published writings on painting that called for imagination and characterisation rather than a mere mechanical reproduction of physiognomy. Sir Joshua Reynolds, a one time student of Hudson's, was the most prominent of Richardson's successors to acknowledge the influence of works such as Theory of Painting and Essay on the Art of Criticism and the Science of a Connoisseur.

William Cowper was the eldest son of Sir William Cowper, a whig politician who represented Hertford for two terms before his death in 1706. He entered the Middle Temple on the 8th of March 1681 and was called to the bar soon after marrying Judith, daughter of Sir Robert Booth, during the spring of 1668. Cowper soon gained a considerable practice, but his success at the bar was eclipsed by that in Parliament. Initially entering as a junior member for Hertford in 1695 and again in 1698, it was noted that; ''the first day he sat in the House of Commons he had occasion to speak three times, and came off with universal applause''(2). He was appointed King''s Council in 1698, returned to Parliament two years later as junior member for Beralston in Devon, and was made Lord Keeper on 11th October 1705. Burnet observed in that year that ''he had for many years been considered as the man who spoke the best of any in the House of Commons''(3), and his first speech in the Lords was further described in terms of its grace and eloquence(4). Cowper was raised to the peerage under the title of Baron Cowper of Wingham (Kent) on 9th November 1706, and was declared Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain by the Queen the following year.

However, following the defeat of the whigs in the autumn of 1710, Cowper surrendered the seal and devoted himself to the needs of opposition. Following the Queen''s death in 1714, he was elected one of the ''Lords of Justice'', in whom the supreme power was vested during the interregnum, and on 21st September that year he was reinstated as Lord Chancellor after Bolingbrooke''s dismissal. He was created Viscount Fordwiche and Earl Cowper on 18th March 1718, but resigned office the following month on the premise of failing health after which he continued to hold his seat in Hertfordshire. Before his death on 10th October 1723 Cowper had a prominent role in numerous trials, and acted as a small patron of literature (earning an ode from John Hughes in 1717) (5).

(1) R. Strong, The British Portrait, (1991), p. 124.
(2) Taken from his obituary in the Chronological Diary
(3) Own Time (original edition), Vol. II, p.426.
(4) Entered in the Journal (1706)
(5) Works, vol. II, ode XX.
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