Contemporary gold frame the reverse with white and gold enamel inscribed with sitter’s name ‘C. PURLING/ Æt 39/ R. COSWAY/ PINXt’, inner bright-cut border, the central aperture glazed to reveal plaited hair and gold initials ‘CP’
Oval, 3.2in (60mm) high
With David Lavender (1997)
Private Collection UK
This portrait of a Gentleman called ‘C. Purling’ was painted during Cosway’s most prosperous years as an artist. He had recently been appointed Miniature Painter to the Prince of Wales (a position he maintained until 1811). Although the sitter in this portrait is currently unidentified, the Purling family appear to have had strong links with the British Navy, India and the East India Company during the eighteenth century.
Born in Devon, the son of a headmaster was attracted to art from an early age and by the age of twelve was working in London under Thomas Hudson and learning at Shipley’s drawing school. Cosway first exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1760 and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1769, exhibiting there 1770-1806.
Perhaps the most characteristic feature of Cosway’s work is the captivating level of luminosity he manages to create. Throughout his career Cosway mastered the use of transparent pigments, which when applied diligently onto ivory exploited the natural glow of the support, as seen in the present work. Another distinguishable feature of Cosway’s work is the sky background, which was exemplified by Cosway and later adopted by competitors such as Andrew Plimer (1763-1837), who, along with brother Nathaniel, Cosway taught to paint.
The present work dates to circa 1785 and was painted at a time when Cosway very much dominated the market for portrait miniatures. He developed a technique, seen clearly here, which contrasted delicate stipple work in the face with more fluent, expressive brushwork in the body and background. Other techniques include ‘floating’ his watercolour pigments on the pale ivory surface he allowed the luminous transparency of the material to suggest the natural glow of light. Here he has left much of the ivory behind the sitter’s head bare.