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Maria Cosway, Progress of Female Virtue (1800). Top Row, Left to right; Title Page; Plate 1; Plate 2; Plate 3; Second Row, Left to right; Plate 4; Plate 5; Plate 6; Plate 7; Bottom Row, Left to right; Plate 8. L. S. Costello, The Falls, Lakes and Mountains of North Wales (1845); Cosway bindings.

Concluding our mini-series on women artists and illustrators in Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection, this week’s blog highlights a work by Maria Cosway published in 1800, described on the title-page as ‘Progress of Female Virtue: Engraved by A. Cardon: From Original Drawings by Mrs Cosway: Thus Woman makes her entrance and her exit’. The work consists of sepia aquatints on buff-coloured paper, touched up with sepia and Chinese white.  Sadly, a companion volume, A Progress of Female Dissipation, is not in Emmanuel’s collection

Maria Cosway, nee Hadfield (1760-1838) was born at Florence, where her English father was an innkeeper, putting up British tourists on the Grand Tour trail.

All her elder siblings had been murdered by a deranged nursemaid who believed she was sending them to heaven, and this shocking event hung over Maria’s life, underlying her Roman Catholicism and her eventual commitment as an educationalist.

Growing up in Florence, she was a pupil of the artist Johann Zoffany, spent much time copying artworks in the Uffizi and also in Rome, and came to know many contemporary artists who passed through Florence, such as Henry Fuseli and John Northcote, who described her as ‘active, ambitious, proud and restless’. After her father’s death in 1776, her mother took her family back to England, determined to make her daughter the successor to the successful woman artist Angelica Kauffman.

Having turned down rather better offers, Maria was eventually obliged to accept Richard Cosway (1742-1821), a very fashionable miniaturist, who was eighteen years her senior and looked rather like a monkey. Cosway was repeatedly and openly unfaithful, and the couple lived much apart. Perhaps jealous of his wife’s talents, Cosway refused to let her sell her paintings, but in the 1780s they were a glamorous couple in fashionable London society. During a visit to Paris in 1786, and again in 1787, Maria became an intimate friend and life-long correspondent of the widowed Thomas Jefferson, then American minister in Paris. Although this is inevitably now seen as ‘an affair,’ both Jefferson and Cosway were so discreet that it is impossible to say from their correspondence how far matters went.

Maria Cosway exhibited portraits and history paintings at the Royal Academy throughout the 1780s. Her most original portrait is her dramatic Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire as Cynthia (1782; at Chatsworth), but various biblical and mythological paintings received a more mixed reception from the critics, as in the 1786 caricature Maria Costive at her Studies.

Maria Cosway is thought to have commissioned the first painting of Napoleon painted in England (now in the Sir John Soane Museum). While staying in Paris 1801-1803 she became intimate with members of Napoleon’s family, and was introduced to the Emperor by her friend, the painter Jacques-Louis David. Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch, invited Cosway to establish a girls’ school at Lyons, which she ran between 1803-1809. Cosway subsequently reestablished the school from 1812 at Lodi, near Milan, and pioneered the cause of education for girls in Italy. The great novelist Alessandro Manzoni sent his daughter to the school, and after a visit to the school by the Emperor and Empress of Austria in 1834 Cosway was created an Austrian baroness.  

It had been an extraordinary life’s journey for the innkeeper’s daughter. But Maria Cosway was a quite exceptionally versatile talent: an accomplished musician, she also became something of an artistic successor to Angelica Kauffman, and went on to become a pioneering educationalist for girls. Her international network of friends and correspondents was so remarkable that it does not seem so surprising that the godmother to her only child Louisa was Princess Louisa of Stolberg, widow of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Perhaps the sad story of Louisa lay behind Maria Cosway’s creation of A Progress of Female Virtue. After her daughter’s difficult birth in 1790 Maria – possibly suffering postnatal depression – left England without her daughter, travelling in Italy and not returning until 1794. Two years later Louisa died, leaving both parents distraught.

Maria’s images for the Progress dwell touchingly on the bonds between mothers and daughters, and on what is learned and taught through these bonds.

The first image shows the mother teaching the child to pray (‘How blest the duty, and how sweet the care, | To teach the infant lips th’unconscious prayer’). The second illustration seems especially meaningful in the light of Cosway’s future commitment to education in showing a small girl engrossed in a book, her doll cast aside (‘The moral tale, to sage reflections join’d, | At once amuses and instructs the mind’). The third image depicts the little girl’s charity to a blind girl as again the fruition of maternal moral education (‘To cheerless want th’allotted mite to spare, | Marks the kind precept of a mother’s care’). The fourth illustration shows the grown young woman as an artist, modestly unaware that she is lovelier than what she is painting (‘While Nature’s beauties her free lines pourtray, | She knows not that she’s fairer far than they’). The fifth illustration, of marriage, is duly followed by one of motherhood as a fulfilment of what had been received as a daughter (‘The tender care her mother gave, she gives, | The heartfelt joys she caus’d, she now receives’). The seventh illustration, of a mother with her growing family, has a caption which seems very poignant in view of the artist Cosway’s absence from her own daughter (‘In search of painted Joys let others roam, | These are the blessings of her happy home’). The final illustration sees the small girl of the opening now as a grandmother, her grandson with a picture book of Lord Nelson’s victory (lots of explosions and smoke), her granddaughter with a doll.

How strange can be the vagaries of fame: Richard Cosway’s name is now more familiar not for his beautiful miniatures of Regency figures but for the ‘Cosway bindings’ invented well after his death. Such lavish bindings incorporate miniatures into the covers, and Graham Watson’s collection includes a particularly stunning example in L. S. Costello’s The Falls, Lakes and Mountains of North Wales (1845), where five delicate watercolour miniatures of Welsh landscapes are set into both the front and back covers.

Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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