Richard and Maria Cosway were celebrated artists and trend setters of the Regency period. Robin Baillie takes a look at a major international loan exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that presents the life and times of one of EurOpe’s most glam partnerships.

‘Style and Fashion. Style and

Fashion . . .‘ was the chant of Jamaican toasters for a brief period in the mid- 80s. After a few minutes‘ immersion in the Regency splendour of the Cosway's exhibition at the Portrait Gallery. you can imagine this phrase continually being on the lips ofthe narcissistic, late 18th century artist and Macaroni, Richard Cosway.

The Macaronis were the periwigged dandies and fops of the 1780‘s. who led London society by virtue of the extremity and affectation of their dress and manners. Cosway as ‘Billy Dimple‘. is caricatured as the portraitist and thus propagandist - for a society obsessed by its own image. He and his young and alluring wife Maria (an accomplished artist in her own right), were the embodiment of everything that was fashionable. Together they produced and disseminated images of themselves and the ‘beau monde‘ around them in a similar manner to Andy Warhol and ‘the Factory‘ in 605 New York.

We find the young Richard Cosway in his self-portrait of 1770, in Vandyke dress. already presenting us with a vision of how he wanted to be seen. That vision combines the pictorial

styles of the Old Masters. especially that of his hero Rubens. with the elaborate costumes and poses of the


E 16th and 17th centuries. Allusion to the l

past mixes with Classical symbolism in l a melodramatic presentation of self. ' Here the artist is also the actor. 3 witnessed by the mask at his fingertips. This age of extravagance and preening g pomposity was also the age of biting ' satire. Caricatures show ‘Dicky Cosway' as a vulgar peasant without the mask of fashion to hide behind. They also show him being smuggled into fashionable favour by being hidden in his glamorous wife's bustle. (his diminutive stature illuminating the title of another print. ‘The Miniature Macaroni'). This is the point where the

Maria and Richard Cosway produced and disseminated Images of themselves and the ‘beau monde’ around them In a similar manner to Andy Warhol and ‘the Factory’ in 60s New York.

The beautiful people: Richard and Maria Cosway

l on the faces of the sitters. adding colour .3 as ifit were make-up. These likenesses j have an ethereal quality as they emerge

from the dew of his silvery pencil work.

exhibition takes off. initiating a captivating struggle between the sharp social criticism of works like Gillray's print of Cosway’s patron. the Prince Regent - later George [V as a fat voluptuary. and Cosway‘s own air- brushed confections.

Richard Cosway‘s fame as a i miniaturist. and the works themselves. reveal that he knew how to provide his sitters with exactly what they wanted. Members of the Royal Family. the aristocracy and famous actresses. are picked out in microscopic detail and pinned in their butterfly best to the powder blue skies behind them. Fashionable society appears as so many bug-eyed specimens due to Cosway’s aphrodisiac effect of enlarging the pupils - beaming out at us from the aspic. i

His delicate pencil drawings are : equally luxurious as he pulls in to focus §

Connoisseurship was another

important aspect of Cosway‘s success and the evidence for it is here in this

' show. It provided him with the kudos ; and the surroundings ofa man of taste

and appreciation. His collections of

antiques and relics of myth and history ': were second to none. and inspired the

great collectors to follow - Sir John

§ Soane in particular. He must have been i thrilled to possess Rubens‘ own paint- : box. emanating as it does a magical ; aura, the source of the great artist's huge historical dramas. The sitters and

dinner guests at the Cosways' Pall Mall mansion would enter this world of objects. art and music. (often performed by the talented Maria

herself). and admire themselves as heirs f to civilisation itself. Among these

visitors were cardinals. princes and generals. a number of whom were also Maria‘s lovers.

Maria Cosway had come from an

.- \ e English family running hotels for grand

tourists in Florence. By the time she reached England she was already developing as an excellent artist. Her marriage put an end to a professional career. but the evidence of her work in this show suggests that she was at least the equal of her husband. Her strong compositional sense and the emotive monumentality of her figures were admired by the French master J.L. David (painter of ‘The Death of Marat'). who kept up a correspondence with her until his death.

Maria‘s time spent in France. both with and without her husband. has yielded us the story of her affair with Jefferson. He was then the US.

; ambassador to France. and the story of

: their romance forms the basis for a

recently released film starring Greta Scacchi as Maria. Maria‘s portrait of the captured English admiral. Sir Sydney Smith. dates from that same period. He was imprisoned by

- Napoleon and is seen in Maria‘s

drawing as a gloriously attired Regency beau surrounded and threatened by the stark. bare masonry of his cell in revolutionary France. It is a startling

' image that signals the end of the I decadent period of the Regency and the . Ancien Regime and presages the

inevitable onset of industrial society

and the mass culture which would

follow it. The dandies had had their


Richard and Maria Cosway: Regency

' Artists of Taste and Fashion reveals a

world where fashion and appearance, as presented by artists and exemplified by

larger-than-life individuals. was as

important to the society of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as ‘Style' is to our times. The exhibition brings these

: consciousness-forming images to our { view and it represents an instructive 5 and pleasurable lesson in how societies

live as much through their fantasies and

' aspirations. as through their realities. ; Richard and Maria Cosway: Regency ; Artists of Taste and Fashion

at the Scottish National Portrait

. Gallery until 22 October.


5 gallery space at the Institut Francais ' d’Ecosse. Because one of her

IIaIIe‘s newspaper cross: The Scotsman Ile you’ve never seen It before


Column Inches

Iliuston Iialle’s elegant installation work is complemented by the calm setting and beautiful view from the

photographic transparencies hangs In the window it’s possible to take In the

: scenery and the art simultaneously.

lIer Installation work is also a well- timed comment on the Festival’s obsession with information, as people find themselves bombarded with thousands of Images and written words. Each wall piece Is made up of 500 newspapers stuck together In a wedge with a transparent photographic Image on the surface. The floor Is tdten up with a massive

cross consisting of 6700 copies of The Scotsman. Although it’s not obvious, Kiuston was adamant that only a Scottish paper would do. ‘l’m asItIng a question about the accumulation of cultural references and Information. What do we do with all this knowledge and how does It affect us?’

As an ex-dancer, Kiuston’s photographs of the female nude show an understanding of choreography and are meticulously directed. ‘i used my experience to pose the models right down to the angle of their little fingers,’ she says. The physical nature

of a dancer’s life still plays an

Important part In Kluston’s work. ‘Iiothing can be done without intellectual purpose but I don’t want to get too heavy about it because really I enjoyed gluing all the newspapers together,’ she laughs. (Gill Iloth)

Kluston Hallo at the Instlfuf France]: d’Ecosse, 13 Randolph crescent, until 20 Sept.

re The List 18-24 Aug 1995