Small is beautiful
4 May 2010
With the help of the MLA/ V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Art Fund and FEMAG, we have just filled a long standing gap in our art collection. Measuring only 7.2 cm high, this portrait miniature of William, 3rd Viscount Courtenay is one of Richard Cosway’s finest. Painted in 1793, in watercolour on ivory, it has an unidentified lock of hair sealed behind.
Born near Tiverton, Richard Cosway (1742-1821) rose to be the most fashionable miniaturist in Regency England. His talents were recognised at an early age when he was awarded the first drawing prize for under 14s by the Society of Arts. From then on Richard never looked back though he maintained connections in Devon for the rest of his life. In 1784 he and his wife moved into a luxurious house in Pall Mall and held a programme of musical soirées at which George, Prince of Wales was a frequent guest.
William Courtenay (1768-1835) was one of Cosway’s most important patrons outside London, with regular family commissions for both miniatures and full-scale portraits. The two men shared a taste for lavish parties and fancy dress. Here William wears ‘Van Dyck’ costume, named after the famous 17th century portrait painter. In a full-length portrait at Powderham Castle, also by Cosway, he wears the same outfit. Known as “Kitty” to family and friends, William inherited Powderham in 1788 and, after a respectable period of mourning for his father, hired a giant marquee to celebrate. His relationship with William Beckford, the novelist, collector and politician, caused a nationwide scandal. In 1784 Beckford was charged with sexual misconduct (they had first met in 1779 when Courtenay was aged 11). Beckford fled on an extended Grand Tour of Europe and the two did not see each other again. Beckford had described William as the “only person to whom I can communicate my feelings – or to whom I can disclose the strange wayward passion which throbs this very instant in my bosom.”
William was responsible for the Music Room at Powderham, designed by James Wyatt, and still used for concerts to this day. In 1811 he escaped from his creditors to the Claremont on the Hudson, USA, and then moved to Paris in 1825-26, where he spent the rest of his life. Today, Powderham remains in family ownership, but only just, as William’s extravagant lifestyle left the estate on the verge of bankruptcy.
Image: 1793 watercolour on ivory of William Courtenay by Richard Cosway (1742-1821)