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Sizing up: The portrait drawings of John Smart and Richard Cosway

By Emma Rutherford

Sizing up:

The portrait drawings of John Smart and Richard Cosway

By Emma Rutherford

The artists John Smart and Richard Cosway are often cited as fierce rivals – competing for commissions in an increasingly crowded market for portrait miniatures. Their first encounter with each other was as precocious adolescents in the drawing school set up by William Shipley (1715-1803) in 1754. Backed by none other than the English moralist painter William Hogarth, the school was founded to provide boys (and, surprisingly for this period, girls) with an education in practical drawing, from where they could apply for a trade.[1] Instead both Smart and Cosway headed into a career in the finer arts, with their innate talents taking them towards lucrative portraiture, where they were tasked with transforming the rich into the beautiful. 


Portrait drawings by miniaturists became increasingly fashionable at the turn of the 19th century. In 1804, the Royal Watercolour Society staged its first public exhibition, ushering in a new appreciation of the genre. Miniaturists were, however, hindered by the size of the ivory discs onto which they could paint. Larger pieces of ivory were prone to splits and cracks – the high level of detail taking far longer than was economically viable for artists. The answer seemed to lie in a hybrid of sorts – taking the talent of the portrait miniaturist but scaling up to a watercolour which could be hung on the wall. 

Hailing from Devon, Richard Cosway shook off his West Country roots with gusto. He would not follow his father by becoming a schoolmaster, but would instead transform himself, drag-queenesque – into a London society macaroni – dressing to be seen and talked about in the gossip columns. Positioning themselves as the centre of a social typhoon, Cosway and his wife Maria were part of a group who fawned around George, Prince of Wales. Son of King George III, he could not have been more different to his father in almost every aspect, including in his appreciation of the arts. This was also reflected in his choice of portraitist, particularly when it came to the secretive portrait miniatures which played such a key role in the clandestine, volatile relationships which defined this clique. 

For Cosway, the portrait drawing seemed to fulfil different aspects of his artistic capacities. As with many artists, his drawings were sometimes a means to an end – an expeditious way to capture a scene later fully worked up into a painting or miniature. However, many drawings appear to have been executed to satisfy Cosway’s own need to record the rich and varied visual life around him. Two contrasting drawings have recently arrived at the gallery for sale – both completely new to the art market. Around ten years separate these images – the earlier drawing being of the Tripolitan Ambassador Sidi Hadji Abdurrahman Adja (1720-1792),[2] drawn around 1786 when the emissary was in London – the later drawing being of the Seymour family in their private pew. 

As previously noted, Cosway had direct access to the Prince of Wales and, in turn, the many fascinating persons who came to England in the later 18th century. With America gaining independence in 1776, official visitors to London included both Thomas Jefferson (with gossip surrounding the nature of his relationship with Cosway’s wife, Maria) and John Adams. In 1786, Adams met the venerable Abdurrahman, his first direct negotiation with an Islamic kingdom. It is not known where Cosway sketched the envoy, but it is clear from his downcast eyes and the pentimenti of his arm that he was unaware of the artist’s presence.[3] As this sketch ultimately remained with the artist and was not evolved into another painting, it remains a rare ad vivum sketch of a figure viewed in eighteenth century London as other-worldly, fearsome, and powerful.


In contrast, Cosway’s drawing of the Seymour family, who were connected to the Hertford legacy of the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square, London, the sitters seem very aware of his presence. In this remarkable drawing, Cosway has captured the whole family, including the dog, who brings a lighter element to the complex composition of such a worthy family. It may have been executed and then gifted to the family after a stay by the artist at Ragley Hall.


John Smart took quite a different path to his classmate Richard Cosway. Their personalities appear to have been completely unalike. Cosway, the effortlessly talented, eccentric peacock; Smart the technically brilliant workaholic. Smart initially used drawings as preparatory sketches to work up his incredibly detailed portrait miniatures. They are often annotated on the reverse with the name of the sitter and colour notes. Although they had an entirely practical function for the artist, when a huge number were released onto the art market by Smart’s descendants in the 1930s, collectors admired these jewel-like portraits with a passion. They are still highly coveted and admired as works of art in their own right. 


Smart also followed Cosway in connecting to new type of drawing, which gave his clients a cheaper yet larger alternative to his portrait miniatures. One of the earliest examples of these is the portrait of Mrs Parker of Bath, signed in full rather than with Smart’s usual initials, and dated 1797. With a light colour applied to the cheeks, this beautiful drawing is larger than any miniature Smart would have been able to paint. It seems Smart also associated with American sitters in London, as his drawing of ‘Mr Dallas’ – likely the same Alexander Dallas who gave his name to the Texan city – shows.


Portrait miniatures are always the most intimate vision we can get of the past – they are the secret gifts exchanged between lovers, or covert images of support and allegiance. In looking at the small drawings produced by miniaturists, we can also get a glimpse of the artist’s side – their personal interests, their working practice and how they really saw their patrons.



[1] Paid work after graduation could include technical drawing for the army or navy or working for an architect.

[2] The drawing of the Ambassador is presented with a separate drawing of his wife and sister-in-law. For further information on these, see the full catalogue description here.

[3] This sketch is very far from a drawing that Cosway might have made up into a finished work of art, yet he seems to have been captivated by the ambassador’s face, observing him with his eyes downcast, his arm gesticulating. This is not a pose which would have served as the basis for a finished work. The off-the-record nature of this drawing can be juxtaposed with the earlier painting of the Ambassador by Longhi.

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