This portrait of an unknown lady dates from 1795. Cosway was well established in his career as one of Europe’s leading portrait miniaturists at this date. Better known for his flamboyant portrait miniatures painted loosely and confidently on ivory, he was also renowned for his close friendship with the extravagant Prince of Wales (later George IV), his eccentric dress and his beautiful artist wife, Maria. In the early 1790s, Cosway began providing drawings on paper alongside his portrait miniatures. Known as ‘stained’ or ‘tinted’ drawings, these allowed him more artistic freedom in conveying more of the sitter’s body and background – unlike many miniaturists, Cosway could draw beautiful hands, his early years at William Shipley’s academy shaping his excellent draughtsmanship.
As with this present work, Cosway often uses the accessory of a veil in his female portraits, perhaps most notably in his portrait drawing of Madame Recamier which became a popular print. The connotations of the veil were numerous – signifying a certain coyness and perhaps additionally the unavailability of the sitter. Gentle colour has been added to the face in this drawing, so the effect is not entirely monochromatic but subtly tinted. This technique was also used in earlier ‘plumbago’ drawings of the 17th century, where the artist’s draughtsmanship was allowed to shine in drawings presented as accomplished works of art not intended as preparatory sketches. It is also evident that Cosway’s own first-class collection of Old Master drawings acted as inspiration for these portrait drawings, the diarist Joseph Farington noting his ‘liberal imitation of the Old Masters’.
Many of Cosway’s drawings were reproduced in print form, often in stipple engravings. His portraits of women and their children were often reproduced with sentimental titles, but others reveal the sitter’s real names and have allowed for identifications which may otherwise have been lost. Sadly, there is no such identification to be made here, the book simply suggestion a lady of some education.