Although remembered primarily as a miniaturist, Cosway also painted oil portraits and, occasionally, subject pictures. Christened at the parish church of Oakford, near Tiverton in Devon, he was a child prodigy. He came to London in 1754, where he studied for a few months with Hudson and then at Shipley's Drawing School, winning a series of prizes for drawing from the Society of Arts between 1755 and 1760. He exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1760 and from 1767 to 1769, then at the Free Society of Artists from 1761 to 1766. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1769, becoming an Associate in 1770 and a Royal Academician in 1771. He exhibited at the Academy from 1770 to 1806. He became increasingly successful and fashionable as a painter of miniatures during the 1760s. His most notable portrait miniature of this period was that of Miss Elliot in the Character of Pallas (Fondazione Cosway, Lodi), which was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1769.
Cosway was a diminuitive, flamboyant figure with a reputation for arrogance and womanising. He was often the subject of caricature, but his self-confidence and wit were such that he was able to deflect the derision he received from his artistic peers. A description of an Academicians' meeting in the early 1770s says that Cosway 'attended in all the gay costume of the drawing-room, with pink heels to his shoes, &c., but the room was so full he could not find a place. "What", said Frank Hayman, "can nobody make room for the little monkey?"'(George C. Williamson, Richard Cosway R.A., London 1897, p.31, revised edition 1905, p.38).
In 1781 he married the Anglo-Florentine artist Maria Hadfield (1759-1838). They lived first at 4 Berkeley Street and then at Schomberg House in Pall Mall, where they entertained lavishly and became the epitome of the smart London set. Their high social profile and self-promotion led to targeting by satirists. From 1785 Cosway often signed his works Primarius Pictor Serenissimi Walliae Principis ('Principal painter of his most serene Prince of Wales'), and frequented royal circles. He produced several notable life-sized portraits of the Courtenay family at Powderham Castle, including William, 3rd Viscount Courtenay (1791, Coll. Lord Courtenay). In addition, Cosway was an important collector of old master paintings, drawings and prints, sculpture and objets d'art. He died in London.
Stephen Lloyd, Richard & Maria Cosway: Regency Artists of Taste and Fashion, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh 1995
John Murdoch, Jim Murrell, Patrick J. Noon and Roy Strong, The English Miniature, New Haven and London 1981, pp.181-8
Graham Reynolds, English Portrait Miniatures, Cambridge, revised edition 1988, pp.124-42