Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Mary Anne Fitzherbert (1756-1837)
For many years, this miniature of Maria Fitzherbert, the morganatic wife of George IV, was identified in Royal Collection inventories as another of his amours, the actress Mrs Mary Robinson (known as 'Perdita') but comparison with accepted portraits of Mrs Fitzherbert, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait of c. 1788 (National Portrait Gallery, London), supports the current identification. It was a miniature of Mrs Fitzherbert which first brought the artist, Richard Cosway, to the attention of the Prince of Wales, who was to become his most important patron. The prince appointed Cosway his Principal Painter c. 1786 and showered him with commissions until the artist fell from favour in 1811. Cosway went on to paint and draw Mrs Fitzherbert a number of times and the Duke of Wellington testified to having seen a miniature of Mrs Fitzherbert by Cosway around the king's neck as he lay on his deathbed. The miniature, set in a diamond locket on a threadbare black ribbon, was buried with the king according to the terms of his will.
The twice-widowed Maria Fitzherbert met George, Prince of Wales, in 1784 and was reluctantly persuaded to accept his offer of marriage late in 1785. As a Catholic, her marriage to the Prince of Wales was in contravention of the Act of Settlement and it was never made public. Their relationship continued until the Prince of Wales's marriage, in 1795, to Caroline of Brunswick, and again from 1796 until their final parting in 1803. She retired to Brighton where she lived quietly until her death in 1837. She remained popular with other members of the royal family long after her relationship with the Prince of Wales had ceased.
Richard Cosway (1742-1821) was born in Devon, the son of the headmaster of Blundell’s school, Tiverton. The family were prosperous, and owned a woollen business and property. At the age of 12, Richard was sent to London to study drawing under Thomas Hudson at Shipley’s drawing school. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1769 and exhibited at the Royal Academy between1770 and 1806. He married Maria Hadfield in 1781 and they had one daughter, who died at the age of seven. Maria copied many of her husband’s works. His portrait of Mrs Fitzherbert attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales who appointed him as his official miniature painter in 1786 and general advisor for the decoration of Carlton House, his residence in London. In 1811, however, Cosway lost the Prince’s favour and his eyesight began to fail. He was an eccentric and outlandish in his behaviour and dress, but was an astute collector and acquired a fine collection of old master drawings. His miniatures are painted with a delicacy and fine modelling, and he developed the technique of using transparent pigments which allows the natural luminosity of the ivory to shine through.