attributed to Richard Cosway

A Lady (? Harriet Mellon) as a Sibyl


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Attributed to Richard Cosway 1742–1821
Oil paint on mahogany
Support: 764 × 624 mm
Purchased 1985

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Cosway's speciality was full-length miniature portraits in pencil, the faces finished in delicate watercolour. Here he tackles a portrait in a rather more ambitious format, presenting the young sitter as the muse of dancing or, perhaps, of lyric poetry, with attendant putti. The idea of depicting modern personalities in this classical disguise had been recommended by Sir Joshua Reynolds as an appropriate means of conferring intellectual dignity on pictures of pretty young ladies. This is an unfinished sketch, but as in Cosway's miniatures the face has been accorded detailed attention.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Richard Cosway 1742-1821

T04114 A Lady (? Harriet Mellon) as a Sibyl c.1805

Oil on panel 764 x 624 (30 x 24 1/4)
Inscribed in pencil in later hand on the back 'Duchess of St Albans', and '[? l or C]138'
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1985
Prov: ...; anon, sale, Sotheby's 10 July 1985 (58, repr. in col., as Richard Cosway, 'Portrait of a Lady as Muse') £8250 bt Leggatt for Tate Gallery

T04114 was independently attributed to Richard Cosway by the late Sir Ellis Waterhouse and Jacob Simon of the National Portrait Gallery before it appeared in the saleroom. The slightly elongated figure, dressed in a flowing, flimsy costume, high-waisted in the Empire style, set within a framework of classical columns and plinths and swagged drapery, is entirely characteristic of Cosway's single full-length female portraits; and attendant putti of just the kind occupying the foreground here are to be found in a number of the artist's allegorical portraits. Also characteristic of Cosway's portrait style is the ovalish line set by the cheek and chin and the slightly exaggerated size of the eyes, and the long curved neck. So often, too, Cosway tends to bring the faces in his portraits to a markedly higher degree of finish than the rest of the picture - just as in T04114.

However, these are points in support of the attribution which rest primarily upon the evidence of Cosway's work in another medium - pencil and watercolour - for there is, so far as the compiler can ascertain, no other work comparable to T04114 in Cosway's known output of oil paintings: these seem always to have been painted on canvas and there are, apparently, no unfinished examples, whereas T04114 is an uncompleted oil sketch on an oak panel.

A simple chemical analysis of the very distinctive orange-red ground used on this panel - but certainly not apparent on the canvases - reveals that it seems to be composed of red ochres (iron oxides), chalk and possibly some organic red and yellow pigments in a binding medium of gelatine size. An analysis of the grounds used by Cosway on his canvases might help in solving the problems which undoubtedly attach to this picture. Nevertheless there are two telling features of the oil painting technique in the Tate's picture which do help sustain the present attribution: firstly, the transparency of the paint, which is thinly applied and allows the ground to tell, is akin to Cosway's practise as a miniaturist; and, secondly, the bold continuous zig-zag brushwork line which runs down the column at the left of the composition finds an obvious parallel in the emphatic, rapid hatching, with the lines similarly joined, found in Cosway's drawings. A good example of this is to be seen in the artist's 'A Lady as Hebe', signed and dated 1805 - which is also very close in composition and subject to T04114 (pencil and wash, 367 x 285, 12 1/4 x 11 3/8; coll. Duke of Hamilton, Lennoxlove).

There is one further aspect of this picture which needs to be examined. A pencil inscription 'Duchess of St Albans' on the back of the panel suggests that it is a portrait. It is clearly a nineteenth-century inscription and would seem to date from the first half of the century. This, the age of the subject and her style of dress, would imply that it must refer to the wife of the 9th Duke of St Albans (1801-49), the former actress Harriet Mellon (1777-1837). She married the Duke in 1827 and so the inscription must date from after that time; it could not, therefore, have been put there by Cosway, who died in 1821. If this fact at the very least raises questions about the correctness of the inscription, nonetheless a comparison between the face depicted in T04114 and authenticated portraits of Harriet Mellon confirms that there is a strong likeness; and it is a likeness which, apart from one important detail, is traceable despite the face possessing certain generalized traits which are a hallmark of Cosway's portrait style (as well as of some of his contemporaries) and which have been already mentioned. Harriet Mellon first became a subject for portrait painters in 1803 when at least two images of her, both miniatures, were exhibited at the Royal Academy - one by Charles Allingham (active 1802-12) and the other by Samuel J. Stump (c.1783-1863). The former was published as a print in September 1803 (repr. Connoisseur, vol. 44, Feb. 1916, p.103); the latter, engraved in stipple by Stump, was also published in 1803 under the title of 'Miss Mellon as the Comic Muse' (185 x 111, 7 5/16 x 4 5/16) and as a whole length (as opposed to Allingham's head and shoulder portrait) allegorical portrait it has obvious points in common with T04114. The clear similarities between the faces are found in the long, thin, slightly hooked nose and the small mouth with its full lower lip and pronounced 'cupid's bow' of the upper lip. These features are also to be seen in Alliogham's portrait and, with varying degrees of emphasis, in other later portraits by other artists (for a full list of portraits of Harriet Mellon see Richard Walker, Regency Portraits, 1985, I, pp.433-4). So distinctive are these two features in the accredited portraits that their presence in T04114 - along with the inscription - seems to point fairly convincingly to the conclusion that the Tate's picture does depict Miss Mellon. Against this, however, must be weighed the fact that while one contemporary account describes Harriet Mellon as a 'handsome brunette' (which approximately tallies with the colour of the hair of the figure in T04114) she is also described as having 'dark, bright eyes' (Mrs Baron-Wilson, ed., Memoirs of Miss Mellon Afterwards Duchess of St Albans, 1840, I, pp.161, 163). A portrait of c.1815 by Sir William Beechey, now in the National Portrait Gallery, gives her brown eyes (Walker, 1985, I, p.433, II, pl.1047) and the Tate picture shows her with blue/green eyes. In view of the unfinished state of T04114 as a whole, perhaps not too much emphasis should be placed on this particular detail. Very possibly a miniature portrait of Harriet Mellon attributed to Cosway (ivory, 114 x 89, 4 1/2 x 3 1/2, Sotheby's 10-13 June 1890, in lot 1460) might provide the answer to this particular problem. The dating of T04114 to c.1805 reflects both its closeness to Cosway's drawing of 'A Lady as Hebe', already mentioned, and the likeness of the face to the portraits of Harriet Mellon of about the same period.

Although titled 'A Lady as a Muse' when it was acquired by the Tate, the picture in fact shows a lady attitudinizing as a sibyl - a female prophetess from classical mythology whose utterances were supposedly written on palm leaves. Her attribute here is a scroll, one held in her right hand and another being perused by the two putti in the bottom right-hand corner of the composition.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.61-2

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