Catalogue entry

T00809 Ashley Cowper with his Wife and Daughter 1731

Oil on canvas 533×612 (21×24 1/8)
Inscribed ‘W Hogarth Fecit 1731’ b.l. and ‘Hic gelidi Föntes, hic mollia prata-Hic nemus, hic ipso tecum Consumerer aevo.’ on the pedestal of the urn
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid and Special Grant) with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1965
PROVENANCE The sitter's younger daughter Elizabeth, who married Sir Archer Croft, Bart, in 1759; their eldest daughter Charlotte Elizabeth who married James Woodcock, who changed his name to Croft in accordance with Sir Archer's will of 1792; thence by family descent c.1950 to the wife of Colonel F. J. O'Meara, née Croft, and sold Sotheby's 24 November 1965 (70, repr.) bt Agnew for the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED Tate Gallery 1971 (35, repr. in col.)
LITERATURE Ireland 1798, p.23; Nichols 1833, p.371; Dobson 1902, p.177; Beckett 1949, p.42 (‘The Cooper Family’); Antal 1967, pp.180–1; Baldini & Mandel 1967, no.42, repr.; Paulson 1971, I, pp.224, 226, 556, no.63; Webster 1979, no.35, repr.; Bindman 1981, p.47, fig.36

Ashley Cowper (1701–88), a barrister who held the office of Clerk of the Parliaments from 1740 until his death, was a friend of the artist. This delightful pastoral may have been begun as a wedding picture, when Cowper married Dorothy Oakes, probably in 1730 (the exact year of their marriage is not known). The votive scene on the urn between them, showing a bearded priestly figure officiating at an altar, would seem to support this notion, as does the apparent fact that the picture was originally conceived as a composition of two figures only: it is included in Hogarth's list of sixteen commissions he had in hand on 1 January 1731, for which half-payment had been received, as ‘Another [conversation], of two, - Mr Cooper’ (BL Add.MS 27995, p.1, reprinted in Ireland 1798, p.23). No commission date for it is given, but it is listed among others begun in 1730. The child was evidently added later, apparently by Hogarth himself, though not very successfully, and the lower right-hand corner of the picture shows extensive pentimenti to the landscape, the ground and the lady's skirts to accommodate the little figure. The pointed hat on her lap also seems to be a later addition, and her right hand was originally higher.

The child is probably Theodora, the eldest of the couple's three daughters, who was baptised in 1731, and died unmarried in 1824. Her younger sister Harriet (baptised 1733, married Sir Thomas Hesketh, and died 1807) may have been thinking of this family picture when she wrote in a letter to William Hayley in 1802 the surprising opinion that ‘Hogarth who excell'd so much and whose fame will never dye, made all his children Frightful! He had none of his own, and my dear Father, who knew him well, has often said that he believ'd his Friend Hogarth had an aversion to the whole Infantine Race, as he always contrived to make them hideous...’ (BL Add. MS 30803 B, p.58, quoted in Paulson 1971, I, p.556, no.63). Elizabeth, the youngest daughter, who married Sir Archer Croft, 3rd Bart, in 1759, was co-heiress of her father and would have inherited the painting for this reason (see Thomas Wright, The Correspondence of William Cowper, 1904, I, p.XXVII).

The painting is one of the most literal interpretations of an Arcadian setting in English art. The quotation on the pedestal is slightly adapted from Virgil's Tenth Eclogue, where the poet Gallus, a pilgrim in Arcadia, pines with unrequited love for Lycóris, an Arcadian shepherdess, musing that for all his determination to go hunting with his hounds on the rough mountains, ‘Here [Lycoris] among cool fountains and soft fields, And woodland, here with you I'd be Time's casualty’, and affirming that ultimately love conquers all. Appropriately, Ashley Cowper leans on a pilgrim's or shepherd's staff, a tall flowing fountain is just visible in the bosky shadows of the background on the right, while the couple's attitudes plainly suggest that, unlike that of poor Gallus, this lover's song does not fall on deaf ears.
Although the painting remained in family possession until its sale in 1965, its attribution to Hogarth was not reconfirmed until 1951, when Colonel O'Meara's colleague Major-General Hargreaves cleaned the painting, revealing the date and signature (letter dated 23 August 1978 from Major-General W.H. Hargreaves in Gallery files).


Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988