Mary Clavering
Mary Clavering

(1685-1724) HOLDING A BOOK


Circa 1709
Oil on canvas 50 ½ x 43 ¾ inches
Framed size 58 ½ x 51 ¾ inches
Inscribed lower right on the stone tablet

Sir Godfrey Kneller was the leading portrait painter in England during the late 17th and early 18th Centuries and was Court painter to English and British monarchs from Charles II to George I.


Mary Clavering Countess Cowper (1685 – 1724) c.1709

Oil on canvas

Probably by descent from George 6th Earl Cowper (1806 – 1856) to Francis 7th Earl Cowper (1834 – 1906), Panshanger Hall;
Lady Amabel Cowper (1846 – 1906) daughter of the 6th Earl Cowper;1
Inherited by her husband Admiral Lord Walter Talbot Kerr (1838 – 1927) at Melbourne Hall;
Private Collection, USA.

This portrait or an autograph version Mary Louisa Boyle A Biographical Catalogue of the Portraits at Panshanger, the seat of Earl Cowper 1885 Number 5 ‘In Lord Cowper’s Study’ pp.335 - 361

The surviving Diary that Lady Cowper kept during her period as Lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales means that we understand not only the extent to which a husband and wife team worked together in Court politics, but that we have a unique female perspective on the reign of King George I, and the establishment of the Hanoverian Dynasty.

Lady Cowper was born Mary Clavering, daughter of Northumbrian landowner and mineowner John Clavering (1655 – c.1702) and his first wife Anne Thompson. The Claverings were a Jacobite family, and thanks to her Diary we possess a remarkable window on what it was like to belong to a family with a foot in both camps in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion of the Fifteen.

On December 5th 1715, Lady Cowper records the entry into London of prisoners captured at the Battle of Preston:

‘The chief of my father’s family was among them, Clavering of Callalee, who is above seventy years old. I did not see them come into town, nor let any of my children do so. I thought it would be insulting to several relations I had there.’2

Lady Cowper then goes on to mention a detail which shows how much the Court recognised the unusual position she was in:

‘M. Bernstorff [Baron Bernstorff, King George I’s chief German minister] made me a strange offer, through his niece, to let my cousin Tom Forster escape on the road if I had a mind to it.’

Lady Cowper excused herself from the subsequent State Trials because Lord Widdrington, one of the principals, was also a relation of hers, although her husband presided as Lord High Steward. She was nonetheless able to save the life of the Earl of Carnwath, who was condemned to death but repriveved, thanks to Lady Cowper’s influence with the Prince of Wales.

Lord and Lady Cowper were otherwise able to present a united front at Court, and they advanced together in their career, until Lord Cowper retired, at which point, most unusually, Lady Cowper decided to continue at Court while he remained in the country.

The couple had met when Mary Clavering had consulted William Cowper over a legal matter, and instantly fallen in love. Cowper’s proposal letter to his future wife survives, though it is expressed in rational rather than romantic terms: ‘I have chosen this plain narrative how I came not so much to be madly in love as to love a settled opinion I think from cool reason and judgement’3

Both were considered a great catch. William Cowper was a young and handsome widower, a rising politician, and about to be made a peer and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Mary Clavering was a talented harpsichordist and as our portrait shows a great beauty. Just as importantly she was also a Lady of the Bedchamber, one of a select company who had the ear of the Princess of Wales, and were thus able to advance their friends. The Cowpers decided to marry in secret on 18th September 1706, for fear that Cowper’s peerage, not yet sealed, might be jeopardised by a jealous female rival. Cowper was duly created Lord Cowper in October that year. The way that politics and private life were inseparable at Court is an underlying theme of Lady Cowper’s Diary.

Lady Cowper was an accomplished politician herself. She had been appointed a Lady of the Bedchamber to Caroline of Ansbach Princess of Wales in October 1714 at the very moment of the Hanoverian Accession, something for which she had been paving the way very carefully. For four years previously she had been keeping up a correspondence with Princess Caroline herself, and with Baron Bernstorff. Baron Bernstorff remained a good friend for the rest of his life, and it was he who told Lady Cowper that she was to be appointed to the Bedchamber.

Lady Cowper spoke fluent French, and this made her especially agreeable to King George I, who spoke no French and German but no English. This gave her an edge over other courtiers who only spoke English. She was able to compliment the King when he first arrived in the Country, and to be first to hand when members of the Royal family wanted anything explained to them. She could use this to her friends’ advantage, as when she told the Prince of Wales that she and her children used to refer to him as ‘Young Hanover, Brave!’ the title the Prince had been given in a ballad by William Congreve: ‘The Prince, however, was not learned in English literature, and asked who Mr Congreve was, which gave me an opportunity of saying all the good of him that he deserved.’

Lady Cowper also intervened more in politics directly. On her first day as Lady of the Bedchamber to the Princess she gave Baron Bernstorff a copy of Lord Cowper’s An Impartial View of the State of the Parties which she had translated into French for the King. This disingenuously-titled treatise argued that the Whigs were the natural supporters of the Hanoverian Succession.

The rift between the King and his heir caused great anxiety at Court and in the country and the Cowpers saw it as their duty to try to heal it. In her Diary Lady Cowper always notes occasions when the King and the Prince were of one mind, even on trivial matters, like the time father and son joked at the Lord Mayor’s Show in 1714 that the Lord Mayor’s wife was really an extra borrowed for the occasion. In 1718 they were instrumental in achieving a brief reconciliation between the King and the Prince of Wales, but the continuing quarrel caused Lord Cowper to become tired of public office, and in that same year he retired, to the regret of the King who created him Earl Cowper and Viscount Fordwich in recognition of his talent. Lord Cowper understood, however, that his wife’s career at Court was separate from his own and urged her to remain there, rather than follow him into retirement:

‘I think 'tis but reasonable, that at least for variety of living, you should find something more satisfaction in a court, than you can in a retired minister (who you know is always a peevish creature) and so solitary a place.’ 4

In 1722 Lord Cowper was falsely accused of involvement in the Jacobite conspiracy known as the Atterbury Plot. A warrant was obtained to search his house, and so Lady Cowper destroyed all documents relating to the quarrel between the King and the Prince of Wales, which included much of her Diary. Only the period October 1714 to October 1716, and April and May 1720 survive.

Lord Cowper died after a brief illness in October 1723. His wife had earlier written to him, ‘You are all that is worth living for,’5 and made her will on December 10th that year. It is an extraordinary testament to the love they shared.
She asked to be buried in the same coffin as ‘my dearest best beloved and most tenderest loving husband’, or if she outlived him by more than a year ‘as I hope I shall not’, she asked for her coffin to be laid alongside his.6 she asked for her coffin to be placed next to his.

Lady Cowper’s daughter Sarah described her mother’s last months:

‘The latter end of December my mother grew much weaker and extremely ill; she lost her appetite entirely, and at times her memory, so that she would speak of my Father as if living, ask for him, and expect him home. When she recollected his death, it seemed with so lively a grief as if it had just then happened. In short, she really had what is often talked of, but seen in very few instances, a broken heart.’7

Lady Cowper died on February 5th 1724 at Cole Green, Hertfordshire. She was buried in St Mary's Hertingfordbury, Hertfordshire, on February 15th. Her Diary was published in 1864, edited by her descendant Charles Spencer Cowper the uncle of Lady Amabel Cowper who owned this portrait.

Lord and Lady Cowper had four children: Sarah (1707 – 1758), William 2nd Earl (1709 – 1764), Anne (1710 – 1750) and Spencer Cowper (1713 – 1774) Dean of Durham.

Kneller, who preferred intelligent sitters, clearly found Lady Cowper a congenial subject, and he had already painted her in a portrait of 1706 (Firle Place, Sussex). Our portrait shows the beauty for which Lady Cowper was famed, and by capturing her as if she has just been called back to duty from a private moment reading it alludes to her inner life. The painting is a contemporary studio version by Kneller’s studio of a portrait in a private collection. It descended through Lady Cowper’s family to the last Earl Cowper’s sister, Lady Amabel Cowper, who inherited Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire and married Admiral of the Fleet Lord Walter Kerr, son of the 7th Marquess of Lothian.

1. We are grateful to Mrs Gill Weston, curator, and Mr Philip Heath, archivist of Melbourne Hall for helping us to research the provenance of this portrait.
2. This and subsequent Diary entries quoted in Mary Louisa Boyle A Biographical Catalogue of the Portraits at Panshanger, the seat of Earl Cowper 1885 no5 ‘In Lord Cowper’s Study’ pp.335 – 361
3. Panshanger MSS D/EP F193, Hertfordshire Archive and Library Services quoted in Anne Kugler Mary Clavering Countess Cowper (1685 – 1724) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ©OUP 2014
4. Ibid.
5. Panshanger MSS, D/EP F59 quoted DNB
6. Panshanger MSS, D/EP T1147 quoted DNB
7. Panshanger MSS, D/EP F233, fol. 259 quoted DNB

We are very grateful to James Mulraine for researching this painting.

Height 50.50 inch (128.27 cm)
Width 43.75 inch (111.12 cm)
External Height 58.50 inch (148.59 cm)
External Width 51.75 inch (131.44 cm)
Stock Code
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