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Peter Leopold Louis Francis Nassau Clavering-Cowper was the second son of George, 3rd Earl Cowper and Anne, daughter of Charles Gore of Horkstowe, Lincolnshire. His father, an art collector and patron, spent a large portion of his life in Italy, with Peter born in Florence in May 1778; his godfather being the Grand Duke of Tuscany, later Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor. In 1781 he was sent to England for his education along with his two brothers, staying with various family relations until old enough to be sent to Eton. He graduated from Christ Church, Oxford in 1797 and progressed to the Middle Temple, inheriting the Earldom on the early death of his brother George in 1799. Soon after he decided the family needed a house worthy of their status and set about creating a country mansion to display the outstanding art treasures his father had amassed during his life in Italy. Seeking advice from Humphrey Repton the old house at Cole Green Park was demolished in 1801 and a suitable design created, and site found, for the new mansion at Panshanger, Hertfordshire which was completed in fashionable Regency gothic style from 1806-1809. Disinterested in political intrigue and frivolous social trivia, he appears to have drawn immense satisfaction in the task of creating Panshanger and the aesthetic decisions such a project involved.
Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society Cowper appears, like his father who supported the physicist Alessandro Volta, to have been intrigued by scientific thought as well as artistic endeavour; a true child of the Enlightenment. Lord Campbell (1779-1861), politician, lawyer and man of letters observed that "He had too much delicacy of sentiment to take a leading part in public life but...from him I received a kind and encouraging notice when I was poor and obscure; and his benevolent and exhilarating smile is one of the most delightful images in my memory..."
Cowper married in 1805 the Hon. Emily Mary Lamb, only surviving daughter of Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne, with whom he had three sons and two daughters. He died in June 1837.
The portrait was probably started within the last five years of Hoppner's life and remained unfinished at his death in 1810; troubled with ill health Hoppner's output at this time was erratic. The Cowper family employed the painter John Jackson (1778-1831) to undertake finishing some of these incomplete canvasses and in this instance he appears to have reduced the original canvas to the standard 30 by 25 inch format and completed the peer's robes accordingly. It seems likely that it was intended as the pendant to the slightly larger portrait by Hoppner of Cowper's wife, Emily which was also finished by Jackson around the same time. Both Sir Thomas Lawrence and James Northcote also undertook portrait commissions of the 5th Earl in his peer's robes, which together with this portrait adorned the walls of Panshanger until the early 1950s.
Along with Gainsborough and Reynolds, Hoppner was one of the leading portrait painters in late eighteenth-century Britain. Born in London in April 1758, he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1775, winning a gold medal in 1782. A regular contributor to the Royal Academy exhibitions he quickly established himself as a fashionable portraitist being appointed painter to the Prince of Wales in 1789. At first inspired by the later works of Reynolds, he soon developed an individual style that is distinguished by a fresh palette of colour combined with a spontaneity of approach. From the 1790s he was also the only serious rival to the young Lawrence and with him was responsible for painting the finest Romantic portraits of the Regency period; evolving from the classicism of Reynolds, these paintings increasingly depict individuals with emotion, character and a greater sense of realism.
Hugh Belsey: 'The Cowper Collection', unpublished dissertation, University of Birmingham, 1982
|Height||30.00 inch||(76.20 cm)|
|Width||25.00 inch||(63.50 cm)|