REYNOLDS, Sir Joshua
(b. 1723, Plympton Earl, d. 1792, London)

Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons

Oil on canvas, 141,5 x 113 cm
National Gallery, London

In his seventh Discourse on Art delivered at the Royal Academy in 1776, Reynolds proclaimed:

He...who in his practice of portrait-painting wishes to dignify his subject, which we will suppose to be a lady, will not paint her in the modern dress, the familiarity of which alone is sufficient to destroy all dignity... [he] dresses his figure something with the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity, and preserves something of the modern for the sake of likeness.

In his fourth Discourse of 1771 he had recommended the 'historical Painter' never to to 'debase his conceptions with minute attention to the discriminations of Drapery...With him, the clothing is neither woolen, nor linen, nor silk, satin, or velvet: it is drapery; it is nothing more.'

Reynolds was not alone in worrying about the way portraits began to look ridiculous as fashions changed. The dress of ancient Greeks and Romans belonged to that period in European history which, educated people then thought, set civilised standards for all time; it was also believed to be closer to nature than modern dress especially the 'straight lacing of English ladies', ' health and long life'. But not all sitters wished to be depicted in mythical charades, and the results could sometimes be even more risible than an outmoded bodice - as when Lady Sarah Bunbury, who 'liked eating beefsteaks and playing cricket' was painted by Reynolds sacrificing to the Three Graces.

Lady Cockburn's portrait demonstrates the half-way mode most successfully adopted by the artist, and his pleasure in it is reflected by his signing it on the hem of her robe - a wonderfully majestic gold 'drapery'. According to the newly fashionable exaltation of maternity, Augusta Anne, Sir James Cockburn's second wife, is posed with her three children (although separate sittings are recorded for the elder boys). James, the cherub kneeling on the left, born in 1771, became a general; George, born in 1772 and clambering around his mother's neck, grew up to be the admiral whose ship conveyed Napoleon to exile on St Helena; the baby, William, born that June, entered the Church and became Dean of York. The commission must have reminded Reynolds of the traditional allegorical image of Charity as a woman with three children; he probably knew Van Dyck's painting (now in the National Gallery, but then in an English private collection) or the famous engraving after it, for his composition resembles it in many details.

Where Van Dyck's Charity gazes up to Heaven, however, Lady Cockburn turns her profile to us and looks lovingly at her eldest son. Despite George's mischievous address to the viewer - probably to be imagined as his Papa - the composition echoes Michelangelo's grand and severe sibyls on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The colour accent of the brilliant macaw, a favourite pet in Reynolds's household recorded as having perched on the hand of Dr Johnson, was an afterthought, recalling Rubens's use of a similar device. So well did Reynolds succeed in lending Lady Cockbum 'the general air of the antique', however, that when the painting was etched for publication, and Sir James objected to his wife's name being exposed in public, the print was entitled Cornelia and her Children after the Roman matron who boasted that her children were her only jewels.