Francis Cotes

Portrait of a Lady

1768

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1267 x 1016 mm
frame: 1500 x 1250 x 105 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Bequeathed by Sir Edward Stern 1933
Reference
N04689

Summary

This captivating female portrait was painted by Francis Cotes at the peak of his career, when he was vying with Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) to become the most sought-after professional portrait painter of his generation. Within two years, however, he was dead, poisoned by a self-administered dose of medicine designed to cure him of gallstones.

In this highly decorative portrait as much attention is paid to the woman's luxurious apparel as her facial features or her relaxed cross-legged pose. Indeed, it is significant that while Cotes was, himself, responsible for painting the face of the portrait and designing the composition, the costume was almost certainly painted by a specialist 'drapery painter' named Peter Toms (1728-77) who collaborated with Cotes on the majority of his portraits.

The dress is a formal sacque or robe à la Francaise in cream and coral pink silk, the bodice decorated with rows of ribbon bows and large, lace sleeve ruffles to cover the elbows; the skirt is covered by white lace-edged, silk gauze apron. This fashion, as the name suggests, derived from France, and became very popular on both sides of the English Channel by the 1760s. Pink was also the most popular colour for women's dress, designed to complement their fashionably pale complexions. Indeed, a virtue is made here of matching the carnation colours in the woman's pale skin with her attire, an effect which is further strengthened by the small spray of pink roses to the left and the creamy foxgloves framed by the trunk of the tree. The notion that the woman is, herself, to be regarded as a product of nature is emphasized by the green, garden bench on which she sits, the foliage that frames her profile and the gentle evening light.

The portrait is signed and dated at the middle right on the tree trunk, 'F.Cotes R.A. pxt | 1768', indicating Cotes's pride at his status as a member of the Royal Academy, which was founded the same year. The picture also bears Cotes's monogram 'FC', suggesting that the full signature may have been an afterthought. The identity of the woman in the portrait is unknown. Traditionally, she is thought to have been the celebrated courtesan, Kitty Fisher, whom she in some ways resembles - especially when compared to Reynolds's profile portrait of Kitty Fisher of 1763-4 (Trustees of the Bowood Collection). However, a possible link between this woman and Kitty Fisher has been discounted on the grounds that Fisher is known to have died in March 1767.

More recently, it has been suggested (Johnson, p.94), that, rather than a courtesan, the woman in this portrait was a member of the aristocratic Yorke family, not least because the picture previously belonged to the Earl of Hardwicke, whose family name was Yorke. It is known that in 1767-8 Cotes was painting Agneta Yorke, the second wife of the Honourable Charles Yorke, second son of the 1st Earl of Hardwicke (private collection). It is possible, therefore, that he may also have painted this portrait at the same time.

Further reading:

Edward Mead Johnson, Francis Cotes. Complete Edition with a Critical Essay and a Catalogue, Oxford 1976, p.94, no.259, fig.77.

Martin Postle
November 2000

Display caption

This elegant and ornamental portrait

is a fine example of Cotes's style, which emphasises fashion rather than character. The sitter, whose identity is uncertain, sits on a garden bench in an artificial yet striking pose. Her gown and its lace are arranged decoratively about her, the pink and white colouring echoed by the foxgloves behind her, and the roses on the left. The portrait was painted in 1768, the same year as the foundation of the Royal Academy. Cotes was one of its founder members, which his prominent signature on the tree trunk, 'F Cotes RA px', proudly announces.

Gallery label, February 2010

Catalogue entry

N04689 PORTRAIT OF A LADY 1768

Inscribed ‘FCotes R.A. px 1768’, with initials in monogram, on tree-trunk, centre right
Oil on canvas, 49 7/8 × 40 (126.7 × 101.6)
Bequeathed by Sir Edward Stern to the National Gallery 1933, with life interest to his widow. Transferred to the Tate Gallery 1979
Prov: The Earl of Hardwicke at Wimpole Hall, Cambs., sold Christie's, 30 June 1888 (52) as ‘Kitty Fisher’, bt. Murray; with Charles Butler 1889–1891; James Orrock sale, Christie's 4 June 1904 (75, repr.), bt. by Agnew & Son for Sir Edward Stern.
Lit: Byron Webber, James Orrock, 1903, i., repr. p.73; Walter Heil ‘Portraits by Francis Cotes’ in Art in America, XX, 1931, pp.2–12; H. Isherwood Kay, ‘The Stern Bequest to the National Gallery’ in The Connoisseur, XCII, 1933, pp.271–4; Tancred Borenius, La Peinture Anglaise au XVIIIme Siècle, Paris 1938, pl.44; Martin Davies, National Gallery Catalogues, The British School, 1946, pl.41; E. K. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530–1790, 1953, p.193, pl. 162B; 4th ed., 1978, p.266, fig. 208; Edward Mead Johnson, Francis Cotes, 1976, p.94, no.259, fig.77.
Exh: Old Masters, R.A. 1889 (146) as ‘A Lady’, lent by Charles Butler; The Royal House of Guelph, New Gallery 1891 (236) as ‘Kitty Fisher’, lent by Charles Butler; mixed antiques exhibition, Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1904 (24) as ‘Kitty Fisher’.

The persistent identification of the sitter as the courtesan Kitty Fisher is untenable, as she died in 1767, and none of the many known portraits of her resembles this (a fact already pointed out in an anonymous press comment on the Hardwicke sale in 1888, preserved in the Whitley Papers, British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings). The lady represented is more likely to be a member of the Yorke family (Yorke being the family name of the Earl of Hardwicke, the first recorded owner of this portrait), as Cotes is known to have painted at least one other member of the family, Agneta Yorke, at about the same date (her portrait, now in a British private collection, appears not to be signed, but was engraved by V. Green 1768; see Johnson, 1976, p.88, fig. 85).

The painting must have been completed in December 1768, as the Royal Academy - of which Cotes, as his signature here so prominently stresses, was a founding member - was not established until 10 December 1768.

What could be an oil sketch (possibly a guide for Cotes's drapery painter) for this picture was sold at Christie's, 30–31 July 1981 (271) as ‘Reynolds: Portrait of a Lady, said to be Mrs Robinson’, 14 × 12 (35.5 × 33.5), bought Gavin Graham Gallery.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981

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