Richard Cosway

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


Not on display
Richard Cosway 1742–1821
Oil paint on canvas
Unconfirmed: 1180 x 1040 mm
Purchased 1995


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

Display caption

Although principally a portrait miniaturist (see cabinet 2: The Portrait Miniature in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries), Richard Cosway also produced some larger-scale works in oil. This allegorical portrait was painted following the death of a young London linen draper, Broome Witts, in 1769. Witts is shown here in the role of Fortitude, introducing his sister Sarah in the guise of Hope (left) to his wife Elizabeth, depicted as Distress. This memorial image was presumably commissioned by one or both of these ladies.

Gallery label, August 2004

Technique and condition

The support is a plain-woven, linen canvas of medium-fine weight. It is attached to a rectangular wooden stretcher (not the original, though that too would have been this shape). The canvas is primed all over with a white ground, which is of a complex construction. First the canvas was coated with an even layer of an off-white paint, containing chalk, lead white, lamp black and red pigments. Before a second coat of the same was brushed on, the whole surface was given a thin coat of unpigmented, animal-glue size. The final layer is of a different composition - mainly lead white with some chalk, lamp black and red. It may have been applied some time after the first ground, as in one sample it can be seen penetrating a crack in the substrate. All layers appear to be bound in oil. The surface of the ground is dense, white, smooth and even.

The image is octagonal in shape; the spandrels at each corner, normally hidden by the frame, are painted brick-red. Although this paint does not extend beneath the whole painting, it is evident with microscopic inspection that it was applied before the composion was begun. No underdrawing or underpainting is visible with surface microscopy but a cross-section from the blue drapery shows a thin but opaque pale bluish grey underlayer. The main pigment in this drapery is Prussian blue, which occurs also in the sky, along with vermilion, a red organic pigment, ivory or bone black and lead white. Examination of the edges normally covered by the frame shows that the blue has faded slightly in the sky and sea. The yellow drapery contains mixtures of yellow ochres with Naples yellow and lead white.

Tests with heat on microscopic samples indicated that the binding medium in the paint is unmodified oil. Despite this or perhaps because of the final 'fat' ground layer, the painting has developed a network of fine shrinkage cracks, which have been retouched. The canvas has a glue lining, which is probably of early twentieth-century origin. The varnish and restoration are more recent, though old enough for the varnish, which looks like dammar, to have yellowed slightly.

Rica Jones
November 1997

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