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Richard Cosway (bapt.1742 d.1821)

A self-portrait with Maria Cosway and Ottobah Cugoano signed and dated 1784

RCIN 653010

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An etching of a scene in an elegant garden in which Richard Cosway sits with his wife Maria beneath a tree. In the centre Ottobah Cugoano stands proffering grapes to Maria. To the right of the group a peacock drinks from a fountain. A classical arch leads to statuary beyond. Proof, 1st state before the addition of an aquatint border; signed in the plate: Cosway: 1784; inscribed below, in pen: Mr & Mrs Cosway at their Pall Mall house; and in pencil: Mr & Mrs Cosway, &c.

Richard Cosway depicts himself seated with his wife Maria (RCIN 653011) and their servant Ottobah Cugoano, supposedly in the garden of Schomberg House in Pall Mall, to which they had moved in 1784, the date of the print. The composition is a homage to two celebrated marital self-portraits by Peter Paul Rubens (both now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich): the so-called Honeysuckle Bower, depicting Rubens and his first wife, Isabella Brant, seated beneath foliage, and the Walk in the Garden, in which the artist is seen strolling with his second wife, Helena Fourment, and son Nicolas in the garden of his house in Antwerp. Here Cosway shows himself and Maria in essentially the same costume as Rubens and Fourment in the second painting and, although the layout of the garden of Schomberg House at this date is not known in any detail, it is likely that Cosway idealised the depiction to echo the classical architecture and statuary and prominent peacock of Rubens’s painting. Cosway found a constant source of inspiration in Rubens, whose sense of luxuriant courtly swagger perfectly suited the later artist, Principal Painter to the Prince of Wales from 1785.

Ottobah Cugoano was born around 1757 in present-day Ghana, sold into slavery in 1770 and transported to the Caribbean. Two years later he was taken to England where he won his freedom following the Somerset case of 1772, which ruled that slavery was unsupported by common law in England and Wales. He was baptised as ‘John Stuart’ in 1773 and although the next few years of his life are obscure, he had evidently entered the service of Richard and Maria Cosway by 1784. This position provided Cugoano with an introduction to London society and he became active as a prominent campaigner against slavery, forming a group called the ‘Sons of Africa’, writing to influential figures including George III and the Prince of Wales and in 1787 publishing his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. The role of this substantial personality in Cosway’s etching is more than just as a decorative foil to the artist and his wife, in the manner of the ‘exotic’ black servants found in European portraiture from the sixteenth century onwards; he is on the same scale as his employers and interacts with them elegantly rather than subserviently, standing over Maria and handing her a bunch of grapes as if he were an angel in a composition of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Text adapted from Portrait of the Artist, London, 2016