Maria Cosway

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

Maria Cosway

Maria Cosway by Julien Fatou, after Richard Cosway

The Cornish poet, John Woolcot, better known by his pen-name of ‘Peter Pindar’ was deeply impressed by the music of the polymath artist composer Maria Cosway:

‘In music, her compositions are tender, elegant and persuasive.’

The connections between sitters can seem rather mysterious, and perhaps it was possible that links existed of which everyone was unaware. In the spring of 1780, the young John Soane was enjoying the ‘Grand Tour’, on which he had embarked two years earlier, with his fellow architect friend, Robert Brettingham. It is likely that George Dance, who himself, had lived in Italy for six years, had advised him on what to see. But as well as enjoying the classical architecture, Soane developed at taste for music and the theatre, no doubt encouraged by the two young women that he got to know, Maria Hadfield (later Cosway), and Nancy Storace, who in a few years time, would sing the part of ‘Susanna’ in the premiere of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. For all of the trio, their fame lay in the future, and their connections were severed.

In 1829, Alan Cunningham remembered the popularity of the music of this great socialite artist. Everyone of bon ton was ‘ready to swell the number of those who listened to the music of the charming Miss Cosway.’

Others were less kind about the soirees over which Maria presided in Pall Mall.  In 178?, the scientist Tiberius Cavallo wrote to the artist Prince Hoare:

‘Mrs Cosway, alias Mar Cosway, Alias Lady Mary Cosway, alias the Goddess of Pall Mall, alias la decima Musa, alias the Magnetic Muse, and her sister Charlotte were very glad to hear something of you and desire their compli-ments-Magnitism [sic] is, at least, apparently, out of fashion there. Two evenings in the week, viz: on Monday and Thursday, Mary the great sits in state; but at other times she is not at home. On Monday last amongst a great variety of people, she had Mr de Cologne and the French ambassadors, persons peculiarly remarkable for being in the same room at the same time. The performance in these stated evenings consist of music, flattery, scraping, bowing, puffing, shaming, back-biting, sneering, drinking tea etc.

An odd connection here-Edward Elgar referred to Jelly d’Aranyi, as ‘the Tenth Muse’ PSS: 24-7-2011

Between 1784 and 1791, Maria and Richard Cosway rented part of Schomberg House on Pall Mall. Living there was not only a way of marking one’s rise in society-the house was just around the corner from Carleton House, the residence of the Prince of Wales. It  also gave the impression of living in the country, whilst being close to the theatres and concert halls of the West End.-one could see cows grazing , and buy their mild, ‘quite freshly drawn from the animal for a penny.’ In 1780 Thomas Gainsborough moved into this modish building.

Taking apartments in the Schomberg as also convenient for the ‘Star and Garter’ tavern,  or rather taverns, as there seem to have been two on Pall Mall, one of which, No. 44, was directly opposite Schomberg House. famous since the middle of the 18th century as the watering hole for dilettanti, sportsmen and duellers; Lord Byron’s great-uncle killed his neighbour, Mr Chaworth there in 1765. The ‘Jockey Club’ met in the building,  from 1752, and it was there that the ‘l.b.w.’ cricket rule was introduced at a meeting in the pub in 1772. The Dilettanti continued to meet in the inn till 1800, according to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1777), ‘Employed according to the intent of the Society in drinkin and Virtù.’’Amongst the bibulous ‘virtuosi’ depicted by Reynolds in his ‘Star and Garter’ paintings were Sir William Hamilton, Sydney Smith, and Joseph Banks.

However, it is clear that Cavallo was alluding to another tenant of the house, in referring to ‘the Magnetic Muse’. This was the age of Mesmer, of the charlatans practising ‘animal magnetism’. The other tenant of the Schomberg, was Dr Graham, who offered sex therapy on his ‘Grand Celestial State Bed’. Horace Walpole dismissed his performance as ‘the most impudent puppet-show of imposition I ever saw.’”’

Maria and Richard Cosway met one employee of the quack doctor, working at his ‘Temple of Health and Hyman’. At this point she was a radiantly beautiful teenager, going under the name of ‘Hart’. Cosway drew her in the character of the classical Goddess of Heatlh, ‘Vestina’, an ‘attitude’ which would become developed into a world famous performance with tutelage from her future husband, Sir William Hamilton. So, for a moment, it seems, Maria Cosway and the very young Emma Hamilton were under one roof, albeit under very different circumstances.

In the 1780’s Maria came under suspicion for her unsuitable artistic associations. She was deeply influenced, even contaminated, as it was seen, by the Swiss artists, Henry Fuseli.  Gossip had it that her ‘…stile is nearer that of Fuseli than any other modern artist.’ On the 18th May, 1785, the Morning Chronicle sneered: ‘Heaven help us, she has caught the Fuzeli.’ Her continental origins, dramatic past, and marriage to such a notorious macaroni as Richard Cosway certainly contributed to this induced hysteria.

In 1800, Maria painted a portrait of the Princess of Wales, with her daughter, Charlotte, whilst the Princess was living at Blackheath. The two of them lean against a sculpture of Britannia and her lion in the picture. The young princess was officially banned from seeing her mother, but servants conspired to let them be together. When she died in childbirth in 1817, the nation was plunged into deep mourning. Maria clearly felt enormous sympathy for this mother and daughter.

When I was thirteen years old, I was introduced to the world of junk markets and antiquarian book shops by my professor, the violinist Ralph Holmes. On one such visit, I bought a ragged family bible from the late 1700’s. When I leafed through it, back home, a torn fragment of paper dropped out. On it, was written the following in careful copperplate:

‘On the Death of Princefs Charlotte


The Fairest of flowers has shed all its blofsom,

The sweetest of lilies has bow’d its pale head…’

The rest of the poem is torn and difficult to read. But the scrap of paper had been carefully pressed between the pages of the bible, a talisman, even a relic of sorts. Charlotte had provided common people with a momentary glimmer of purity, of royalty freed from madness and debauch. And then she had died. This piece of paper has been with me ever since.

The famous letter from Thomas Jefferson to Cosway The Heart and the Head’ was clearly an extension of the conversations which they had enjoyed during their short time together in Paris, the jeux d’esprits of the intellectual salon culture of pre-revolutionary Paris, and the time that they had spend at music together.

Music and drawing were seen as suitable accomplishments for women, so long as they remained in the drawing room and the salon.  In a 1790 letter to Maria, Thomas Jefferson, a polymath himself, wrote, “They tell me que vous allez fair un enfant [you are having a baby]… This will wean you from your harp and your pencil.”

John Soane, Architect, Ed. Margaret Richardson & MaryAnne Stevens, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1999,Pp.96-8

Lives of the Most eminent English Painters, Cunningham, II, 350, quoted in: Richard and Maria Cosway-a biography, Gerald Barnett, Lutterworth Press, Cambridge 1995

Richard and Maria Cosway-a biography, Gerald Barnett, Lutterworth Press, Cambridge 1995, P.71

A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy, 1701-1800, John Ingamells, New Haven and London, 1997, P.70

Gainsborough, Ed .Rosenthal and Martin Myrone, Tate, London, 2002, Pp.21-2

Henry Fuseli, Martin Myrone, Tate, London, 1996, P.49

The Unruly Queen, Flora Fraser,Macmillan, London, 1996,  P.127

Letter: Thos Jefferson to Maria Cosway, New York, June 23rd, 1790.   Quoted in “Jefferson in Love”, Ed.   John P. Kaminski, Madison House, Madison , 1999, P. 132