Fake Or Fortune? Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce with the painting ‘Peniston Lamb II’, originally valued at £8,000 (Photo: Ben Fitzpatrick/BBC/PA Wire)
Last night the BBC aired the latest episode of ‘Fake or Fortune?’, which examined this portrait of Peniston Lamb, concluding that it was painted by a young Thomas Lawrence rather than by the fragrant Maria Cosway, as previously believed. The programme highlighted the vagaries of the art world – the change in attribution meant a difference to the price tag from £8,000 to £500,000. Strange – because a fine painting is a fine painting, and I had not realized that a Maria Cosway was valued so little. It reminded me that I had done a post about Maria some time ago, so I thought I would repeat it:
On the left, Richard Cosway’s hauntingly attractive portrait of his young wife, and on the right, her own self-portrait.
The story of the life of Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Hadfield (later Cosway) is a remarkable one by any standards. Italian born in 1759, she was originally one of eight children but four were murdered by their insane nursemaid, who was caught after being overheard discussing how she was planning to kill the young Maria as well. Small wonder the girl was a bit unstable!
She showed an aptitude for painting at an early age and when she came to London in 1779 she attracted the attention of Richard Cosway, well known miniaturist and middle-aged roué. They married two years later, despite a twenty year age difference.
Wax portrait of Maria
She had an interesting life of romance to say the least. A beautiful woman, she quickly attracted admirers when she came to London, becoming known as ‘the Goddess of Pall-Mall’ when the couple moved to Schomberg House House and opened a salon there. Later the couple moved to larger premises in Stratford Place. It was the venue for fashionable people to meet and to be seen.
An extract from Maria’s painting entitled ” Georgiana as the Goddess Diana”courtesy of Chatsworth House
Like her husband she also painted miniatures :
(this being one of her later works, circa 1820)
She was a fine artist with a celebrity status of her own and she exhibited some thirty pictures at the Royal Academy in a twenty year period from 1781. I must confess that many of her paintings are not to my personal taste, particularly the ones with mythological scenes and wing-ed nymphs! She was also a hugely accomplished musician and composer. She entertained royalty in London, and later, the Bonaparte family in France. © National Portrait Gallery, London
“A View from Mr. Cosway’s Breakfast-Room Pall Mall, with the Portrait of Mrs Cosway (Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway (née Hadfield) stipple engraving, published 1789, by William Russell Birch”
Later on a trip to Paris with her husband in 1786 she was introduced to the recently widowed Thomas Jefferson, the American Envoy to the Court of Versailles and who was living in Paris at the time. He was 43, she was 27. Jefferson fell in love at first sight. To begin with they were inseparable companions sampling the delights of Paris, sharing a similar love of art, architecture and music (Jefferson was a talented violinist). But after six weeks Richard Cosway got tired of the besotted Jefferson and sent his wife back to London. Maria was the subject of Jefferson’s 4000 word letter entitled ‘A Dialogue between the Head and the Heart’ written in October 1786. There followed a passionate if sometimes one-sided correspondence which was to last for the rest of Jefferson’s life. They met up again in Paris.Theirs appears to have been a platonic romance (Maria was a strict catholic girl with a convent education to terrify her into fidelity) but the ‘affair’ rumbled on for many years. On the occasion when Maria left for Italy and he for America he wrote “One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart.”
A portrait of Thomas Jefferson, attributed by some to Maria Cosway.
She travelled extensively in Europe after her marriage (and not necessarily partnered by her husband). The relationship with her husband was a curious one – they had a daughter (who died as a young girl) but Richard made no secret of his numerous affairs. For a while it suited them to remain married, but eventually the marriage was annulled.
In 1802 Maria went to Paris and started a girls’ school there. She was then asked by the Duke of Lodi to return to Italy and found a convent and college for girls. She did so, and on 1st April 1812 the school at the Convent di Santa Maria delle Grazie opened its doors for the first time. She remained closely involved in the running of the college and her work as an educationalist led to her being awarded the rank of Baroness by the Austrian Emperor Franz I. She died at Lodi on 5th January 1838.
And O.K. you get one mawkish picture with wing-ed dryads. It is entitled “An Angel and Putti accompanying a child’s soul to Heaven” and is not to my taste at all…..