King George IV was Cosway's greatest patron, granting him the title Primarius Pictor Serenissimi Walliae Principis (Principal Painter to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales) in 1785, and his favour won the artist important commissions from both the Royal Family and British aristocracy. Cosway was the artistic advisor for the decorative scheme at Carlton House, and Surveyor of George IV’s picture collection, sourcing paintings from auction houses and dealers. Cosway also contributed to Carlton House, as a gift to his patron, four Gobelins tapestries from Coypel’s Don Quixote series which Cosway had been given by King Louis XVI in 1788, and today hang in the West Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Much like the present drawing, the relationship between the Prince and Cosway was inspired by the Prince of Wales’s liaison with Maria Fitzherbert and it is alleged that Cosway owed the Prince’s favour to a successful early portrait of Maria Fitzherbert now in the Royal Collection. Throughout his lifetime, George IV commissioned almost fifty miniatures from the artist, which he presented as gifts to members of his family, friends and mistresses. He himself first sat to Cosway in 1780 and portraits by the artist quickly became the favourite gift from the Prince to his various mistresses, to whom he often presented portraits of himself.
Of all the Prince’s romantic attachments, it was Maria Fitzherbert whom he chose to gift with images of himself and to have had immortalised by Cosway most frequently. The artist painted no fewer than eleven works for and of Maria, and the frequency and date of the various commissions correspond to the periods of intense attachment and estrangement that characterized the couple’s tumultuous relationship. Cosway’s primary practice was as a painter of portrait miniatures, and here Maria is depicted wearing a pearl necklace with a suspended profile portrait of George IV. Such objects were hugely intimate, and a diamond-glazed locket depicting George IV owned by Maria Fitzherbert, from the same collection as the present lot, was sold in these Rooms, 6 July 2017, lot 14 (fig. 1).
Born into a Roman Catholic family, Maria Anne Fitzherbert (1756-1837) was the eldest child of Walter Smythe of Brambridge, Hampshire, younger son of Sir John Smythe, Bt., of Acton Burnell, Shropshire. She was educated in Paris at an English convent run by Conceptionist nuns. She married, first in 1775, the Catholic Edward Weld (1741-1775) of Lulworth Castle who died intestate three months later. His estate passed to his younger brother and Maria was obliged to re-marry. In 1778 she married Thomas Fitzherbert (1746-1781), a Catholic landowner of Swynnerton, Staffordshire. On his death she inherited their residence in Park Lane and she entered London society. By 1784 the Prince of Wales began to pursue her in earnest and she travelled to the continent, in part to avoid him, leaving him increasingly frustrated.
Three Acts of Parliament prevented a legitimate marriage between the Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert: The Act of Settlement, the Act of Union (both of which prevented a prince or princess married to a Catholic from succeeding to the throne) and the Royal Marriages Act, an act created in 1772 by King George III requiring his consent for any members of the royal family to marry, and intended to protect the status of the royal house from being diminished by marriages to non-royals. Despite the illegality of a marriage between them, the Prince of Wales wrote numerous long, impassioned letters begging her to return to England and in his longest letter he even tried to convince her that the King would secretly permit the union. This 42-page love letter, which was sent to her with a portrait miniature of his eye by Cosway, and is the only love letter from George IV to Maria Fitzherbert to have survived, is now in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Maria’s exile eventually came to an end following the Prince of Wales’s persistence and several attempts to track her down in Europe. She reluctantly consented to the marriage which, despite his indiscretion on the subject, the Prince of Wales demanded she keep secret. The couple married in secret in December 1785 in a ceremony conducted by the Rev. Robert Burt, a chaplain whose release from Fleet Prison had been arranged by the Prince, and who committed an act of high treason in marrying the couple. The marriage remained a secret and their mysterious relationship generated a huge amount of intrigue, speculation and distrust at court, leading to a string of correspondence between the ladies of the aristocracy about how to avoid social events with Maria Fitzherbert, as well as a wave of satirical cartoons by Gillray. The key criticism was not the liaison itself (as it was generally accepted that the Prince of Wales would have affairs with mistresses) but the marriage, which was highly controversial, for Maria was both a commoner and a Catholic.
Following their marriage in 1785, Mrs Fitzherbert was given a luxurious home in Park Lane and was showered with expensive love tokens and diamonds by the Prince of Wales. Commissions from Cosway were an important part of the couple’s relationship and Maria first sat to Cosway in 1784.
An inventory of Cosway’s belongings made in 1820 lists all of the artist’s outstanding debts, many of which were owed by George IV, who owed Cosway £2,832 18s. for work done between 1780 and 1808. Dr Stephen Lloyd has suggested that this drawing is likely to be the ‘Mrs F’s drawing’ for which George IV owed 40 gns in 1789, the most he ever charged for a drawing of Maria (op. cit, p. 206), reflecting its remarkably large scale and high level of finish.