Portrait of a Gentleman, his Wife and Sister, in the Character of Fortitude introducing Hope as the Companion to Distress (`The Witts Family Group') circa 1775

This group portrait was probably commissioned by the widow of Broome Witts (1738-69), a wholesale linen-draper in the City of London, as a memorial on his death after only five years of marriage. The picture depicts three members of the family as allegorical figures dressed in classical style and supported by symbols alluding to their personifications. In the centre is Broome Witts as 'Fortitude'. His strength is indicated by the classical column against which he stands, his wisdom by the figure of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, atop the column. He is introducing 'Hope', in the person of his younger sister Sarah Witts (1745-91), on his right, as a companion to his grieving widow Elizabeth Witts (née London, 1738-1837) as 'Distress', on his left. 'Distress' sits on a towering rock with a snake at her feet, while 'Hope', resting on an anchor, stands against the horizon and open sky, pointing heavenwards. The pervading mood is one of melancholy.

The picture, successfully emulating the grand manner of portraiture of Sir Joshua Reynolds, was one of Cosway's first submissions to the newly founded Royal Academy, where it was exhibited in 1770. Cosway was elected an Associate of the Academy the same year, an event which must have been assisted by the favourable response to this work.

Further reading:
Stephen Lloyd, Richard & Maria Cosway: Regency Artists of Taste and Fashion, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh 1995, pp.31-2

Terry Riggs
October 1997