This is one of a set of five pictures painted by Leighton of the children of the 6th Earl Cowper, undertaken circa 1861-2. They were all painted in the same format and framed in identical Italianate frames. Early in the summer of 1860 Leighton spent time with the young Earl Cowper whom he befriended in Rome. The following year, when visiting Mrs Sartoris and Henry Greville in Hampshire, he also visited Wrest Park, which belonged to the dowager Lady Cowper. It was apparently on this visit that he painted her portrait (measuring 23 5/8 x 19¾ in.) and our picture of her eldest son. This was followed by companion portraits of his siblings - Henry, Florence, Adine and Amabel.
Leighton faced surprisingly strong opposition from the Royal Academy during his first years in England and became associated with a group of independent artists outside it. There was a clique within the Royal Academy hostile to his art, who were also no doubt jealous of him on a personal level. Between 1856 and 1864, when he was made an Associate of the Academy, this clique managed to make sure that his pictures were poorly hung and sometimes rejected. Leighton was one of a few artists who had studied abroad and the clique resented his style of painting. It is in this light that we should see the rejection of our picture in 1862 from the Academy's Summer Exhibition, along with Rustic Music. Indeed, when one of his finest pictures, Salomé Dancing, was barred the following year the hanging committee was becoming sensitive to accusations of unfairness, and William Powell Frith wrote Leighton a personal letter of explanation. It is ironic that Leighton should later have become President of the Royal Academy and one of its greatest champions.
Francis Thomas de Grey Cowper was born in 1834. He became a liberal politician who served as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland between 1880-2. In 1870 he married Katrine Cecilia Compton, eldest daughter of the 4th Marquess of Northampton. She belonged to the cultured circle of the 'Souls', although it was her niece, Lady Desborough, who later dominated that group. Five years after they were married, Lady Cowper was painted by Edward Clifford, a follower of Burne-Jones, who specialised in portraits of the artistocracy. (The portrait was sold at Christie's, London on 5 November 1993, lot 136 (£10,500)). She was later painted by Edmund John Poynter (illustrated in J. Abdy and C. Gere, The Souls, 1984, p. 171.). The Cowpers had a London house at 4 St. James's Square, which contained interiors by Robert Adam, and vast estates: Panshanger in Hertfordshire, which contained a remarkable collection of pictures, and Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, a 'château' noted for its formal gardens in the style of Le Nôtre. Lady Cowper was a renowned hostess who pioneered the Saturday-to-Monday visit. She died childless eight years after her husband in 1913, and bequeathed Panshanger to Lady Desborough.
We are grateful to Leonée and Richard Ormond for their help in the preparation of this catalogue entry.