This exceptional full-length pastel portrait depicts George Clavering Cowper, 3rd Earl Cowper one of the outstanding figures in eighteenth-century Florence by the greatest Irish portraitist of the period, Hugh Douglas Hamilton.
Preserved in remarkable condition, housed in its exceptional, carved Florentine frame, this portrait has remained by descent in the sitters’ family. Cowper spent most of his adult life in Florence where he lived magnificently in series of rented palazzi and villas, pursuing a range of cultural, political and scientific interests. Cowper championed the music of Handel, sponsoring performances of his works in Florence for the first time, patronised a stream of artists, including Johan Zoffany from whom he acquired the Niccolini-Cowper Madonna and Small Cowper Madonna both by Raphael and both now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington and sponsored a number of scientists including Alessandro Volta’s work on electromagnetism. Hugh Douglas Hamilton resided in Florence for two years, studying in the Uffizi and producing portraits of Grand Tourists as well as members of the resident British community, his portrait of Cowper is undoubtedly the masterpiece from his time in the city, an astonishingly virtuosic work which demonstrates Hamilton’s mastery of the medium of pastel.
In 1785 the poet and dilettante Robert Merry published a collection of verse by Italian and British writers entitled The Florence Miscellany, it contained the following note:
‘Mr Hugh Hamilton of the Kingdom of Ireland; an artist of great merit who resides at Florence, and who is equally excellent in the spirit and correctness of his design, the perfect harmony of his colouring, and the striking resemblances of his portraits. His superior stile of painting in Crayons is well known.’
Hamilton had arrived in Florence in October 1783 after a brief and successful residence in Rome where he had drawn several celebrated figures, including Francesco Piranesi and the British dealer James Byres. Hamilton was 43 and had already forged successful careers in his native Dublin and London, specialising in intimate pastel portraits, but in Italy he transformed his approach, pushing the boundaries of pastel by making a succession of ambitious large-scale portraits. Hamilton’s sequence of full-length pastels of British travellers in Italy have long been considered some of the defining works both of the Grand Tour and of the pastellists art. This transformation began in Florence where he produced a series of his earliest full-lengths, including this portrait of George, 3rd Earl Cowper.
Sequestered in a private collection it has been largely overlooked by recent scholarship on Hamilton making its reappearance of particular importance. This reappearance offers a timely opportunity to reconstruct Hamilton’s artistic development in Italy and reconstruct the complex personal relations which led to the commission, relations which encompass the dissolute Robert Merry and the expatriate circles in 1780s Florence.
Shortly after his arrival in Florence, Hamilton was recorded drawing in the Uffizi. It is likely that he sought the patronage and protection of the leading British residents in the city, chief amongst them George Clavering Cowper, 3rd Earl Cowper. Cowper had arrived in Italy in 1759 as Lord Fordwich on his Grand Tour, on the death of his father in 1764, he had inherited both the earldom and substantial fortune, deciding to settle permanently in Florence. By 1772 Cowper had moved to a 58 room palazzo on Via Ghibellina, where he entertained on a lavish scale. Cowper was close to the Hapsburg rulers, being an intimate friend of Pietro Leopoldo, Grand Duke of Tuscany, as a consequence he was able to help travelling British painters gain admittance to the Uffizi and, crucially, much coveted permission to copy works in the collection. In 1772 Cowper was asked to assist Johan Zoffany, who had been commissioned to paint the interior of the Tribuna of the Uffizi by Queen Charlotte. Letters preserved amongst the archive of the painter Ozias Humphry show that Cowper had applied to Pietro Leopoldo on Humphry’s behalf in 1775, securing him the rare permission to copy both Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia in Palazzo Pitti and Titian’s Venus of Urbino in the Tribuna. We know that Hamilton was granted permission to draw in the Uffizi in January 1784, by November he had completed a large-scale pastel of the Venus de Medici ‘copied from the statue but coloured like flesh and blood.’
Hamilton’s first securely dated full-length portrait of a British Grand Tourist is the fine depiction of Sir James Graham leaning on Jonas Brooke’s tomb which is now in a private collection. Hamilton had travelled to Venice with Graham and Brooke in May 1784, the latter had died in Milan in July and Hamilton began his portrait of Graham in Florence in November. The novelty of the conception is significant, showing a single standing figure in a wooded glade, Sir James Graham leans casually on the tomb of his friend, the ancient tomb of the Plautii at Albano can be glimpsed in the background. The strong palette, of turquoise blues, the beautifully blended features and incisive drawing of costume details such as Graham’s gloves, buckles, stick and hat and the loosely modelled landscape all established a formula which Hamilton would use to stunning effect in his other Florentine portraits.
The present portrait depicts Cowper in precisely such a turquoise coloured sylvan landscape. Cowper is shown in a vivid red coat, buff breeches and costly gold trimmed waistcoat. Cowper is also shown prominently wearing the sash and star of the Order of St Hubert. Cowper was installed as a Knight of the Order of St Hubert at a ceremony held at Munich on 28 March 1785. This gives as a terminus post quem for the present portrait, which seems likely to have been made in the first months of 1785. Unlike Hamilton’s Grand Tour portraits, his masterful depiction of Cowper, shows someone permanently resident in Italy, as such he dispenses with any ostensible topographical detail. The only prop is a splendid hunting dog – with cropped ears, the custom for working dogs at the time - shown wearing a boldly inscribed collar announcing its ownership. The pastel itself is handled with astonishing assurance. The face and costume show areas of subtle blending, whilst details, such as the ends of Lord Cowper’s gloves and the foliage of the trees are drawn with the sharpened point of the pastel itself. This variety of technique contributes greatly to Hamilton’s evident skill at characterisation, the ‘striking resemblance of his portraits’ praised by Merry in Florence Miscellany. Hamilton was also pushing the boundaries of the medium in which he was working, always interested in pigments and pastel manufacturing, in Italy he found sheets of paper and glass large enough to create truly splendid works. The present pastel is executed on a single sheet of Italian paper, laid on linen, the pastel extraordinarily remains in outstanding condition on its original support and stretcher. The exceptional carved frame was made in Florence and seems to have been a design of Hamilton’s own, the same pattern frame can be found on his portrait of Sir James Graham leaning on Jonas Brooke’s tomb.
It seems almost certain that Cowper became one of Hamilton’s most significant Florentine patrons. Cowper’s wife, Hannah, known as Anna, sat to Hamilton at the same time. Probably conceived as a pendant, the large-format pastel showed the Countess Cowper with her sister, Emily Gore seated in a wooded setting, one of the sitters shown playing a harp. This full-length pastel was sent to London and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1787, it is now only known from a sketch copy by Anna Tonelli. Hamilton produced a further portrait of Lady Cowper, showing why one contemporary visitor to Florence declared her ‘the most beautiful woman I ever saw.’ The intimate oval portrait preserved at Firle Place in West Sussex, shows Lady Cowper with her head leaning on a large bound volume, it is the casually seductive pose which Hamilton would reuse in his masterpiece of Emma, Lady Hamilton as Three Muses painted in Naples in 1788. Lady Cowper was not only beautiful but consistently unfaithful to her husband, the same tourist who had praised her looks noted that she was: ‘proud and capricious & almost all the travellers of this season are disgusted with her.’ This was 1784 and she was conducting an open affair with the poet Robert Merry who sat to Hamilton for a full-length portrait in an identical mode to the portrait of Lord Cowper, in a wooded landscape, holding the bridle of his horse and every inch the man of feeling.
In 1786 Hamilton returned to Rome where he established himself at the heart of the artistic community in the city. He moved away from the lushly vegetated backdrop for his pastel portraits and began to deploy more conventionally Grand Tour staging: including Frederick North, later 5th Earl of Guildford, posed in front of the Roman Forum, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington and John David La Touche, in front of the amphitheatre at Taormina with Mount Etna beyond. What makes his pastel of Cowper outstanding is the combination of sheer quality, condition and design with the stature of the sitter, unlike the majority of Hamilton’s Italian pastels, his portrait of Earl Cowper depicts one of the central figures of Grand Tour Italy. Cowper was a pioneering patron of music, and musicians in Florence, his remarkable surviving account books show his support for composers and performers. Responsible for translating Handel’s English oratorios into Italian, Cowper was a leading member of all Florence’s learned societies including the Accademia del disegno and the Accademia della Crusca, devoted to maintaining the purity of the Italian language. Cowper’s fitted up a sequence of rooms with the finest scientific instruments of the day. In 1783 Mary Berry described her visit to the palazzo on via Ghibellina:
‘Breakfasted at Lord Cowper’s, in the cabinet an apartment of five small rooms elegantly fitted up with the finest instruments for experiments in all the different branches of natural philosophy: one is dedicated to electricity, a second a laboratory, a third for optics, a fourth for hydraulic experiments, a fifth for air.’
Cowper supported local scientists – particularly Alessandro Volta – and encouraged the scientific interest of Pietro Leopoldo; Cowper is emerging as a major figure in encouraging the enlightened policies of Hapsburg rule in Tuscany in the last decades of the century. Cowper is also emerging as a figure of huge cultural relevance, thanks to the survival of his extraordinarily detailed Stewards’ journal of accounts, which list in minute detail Cowper’s household expenses and expenditure. In them we gain a granular account of a European patrician household at the end of the eighteenth-century, from them emerges a remarkable portrait of the vast cast of characters, from maids, coachmen, postillions and other domestics to the mendicant orders in Florence which all relied upon Cowper’s income. The account books even itemised the amount spent on Cowper’s dogs, their food, medication and, of course, brass collars.
- Ed. Robert Merry, The Florence Miscellany, Florence, 1785, p.215.
- For Cowper and Zoffany see Mary Webster, Johan Zoffany, New Haven and London, 2011, pp.219-312. For Ozias Humphy see London, Royal Academy, Archives, Humphry Papers, 2/5.
- Fintan Cullen, ‘The Oil Paintings of Hugh Douglas Hamilton’, The Walpole Society, vol.L, 1984, 1984, p.167.
- Nicola Figgis, ‘The Italian sojurn’, in ed Anne Hodge, Hugh Douglas Hamilton: A Life in Pictures, exh. cat. Dublin (National Gallery of Ireland), p.31.
- Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, online edition, cat. no. J.375.1235.
- Ed. Lady Theresa Lewis, Extracts fromt the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry from the year 1783 to 1852, London, 1863, vol.I, p.122.
- Ed. Philip Sheail, ‘The Third Earl Cowper and his Florentine Household 1760-90’, Hertfordshire Record Society, vol. 36, 2020.