Completed Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 18th C, Portraits: British 19th C 26 Can you help us resolve mysteries around the sitter and artist of this portrait?

Topic: Artist

We have in our Collection this painting that depicts Sarah Burton. Our records state that the artist is Francis Cotes (1726-1770), and this is also reinforced by a plaque attached to the frame which gives the artist as F Cotes.

This information must be incorrect in regard to the date and the artist. Francis Cotes died in 1770, well before Sarah Burton would have reached adulthood. Further, the woman in the painting is not wearing clothing of the 1760s or the 1840s (the portrait currently has 1840 recorded as the date), but is in fact wearing costume that appears to be around 1810 in date.

It is one half of a pair of paintings which were donated together, the other supposedly being of her uncle, David Burton Fowler That painting is also incorrect in regard to the date of the artist and the clothing worn by the sitter.

The painting was in Canada before it was donated to us, so there is the chance that the sitter is not Sarah Burton at all. The donor possibly had links to the Oxford Group (later Moral Re-armament) and travelled frequently between the UK and Canada.

Any help/ideas on who painted this portrait, as well as if the sitter can be determined to be Sarah Burton, would be greatly appreciated.

Note: The Collection’s research on the Burton-Fowler family is so far indicating the only Sarah who is David Burton Fowler's niece was born Sarah Hicks and was the daughter of Elizabeth Burton (his sister). So her name will not have been Sarah Burton when sitting for the painting, as the label implies.

Preston Park Museum & Grounds, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. An artist attribution has not been possible and that there is insufficient evidence to identify the sitter. The various ideas suggested, including those relating to dress and possible dating, will form an addition to the museum's file for future reference.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Jacinto Regalado,

This is Regency fashion, more likely second than first decade of the 19th century. What appears to be a tortoiseshell comb in the lady's hair may be a useful clue; Lou Taylor should address that.

Jacinto Regalado,

Is the painting actually signed? Is there anything potentially relevant on the back of the canvas or frame?

Jacinto Regalado,

As for the portrait of the supposed uncle, for it to be by Francis Cotes it would have to be 1760s, and again, Lou Taylor should address whether or not the fashions depicted fit that dating. As already noted by the collection, the picture of "Sarah Burton" is definitely not by Francis Cotes.

Jacinto Regalado,

For what it's worth, other than Francis Cotes and his brother Samuel (a miniaturist), who both exhibited at the Royal Academy in the 18th century, no painter named Cotes showed at the RA before 1900.

Rbt Brown,

This portrait appears similar to American portraits of the period. Maybe the sitter was in NYC or DC when this was painted.

Jacinto Regalado,

The artist is competent enough but of provincial quality, certainly not any "name" artist, especially a British one.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

I would date this portrait to c 1810 (1805-1815 at the widest set of dates). Her very high waistline fits these dates. This is an evening dress. Her hair style fits c 1810. Mantilla combs were worn then but not as much as in the 1830s. The portrait seems to match in style well to the dress and hair style in Mme J. G. Eynard by Firmin Didot 1810. Musée d'Art Geneva. I attach a sample of a typical dress: white muslin c 1810 MET NY 1987.236. See also plate from 'Ladies Monthly Magazine', Jan 1815. Finally see portrait of Marcia Fox, 1810 by William Beechey which shows a day dress with muslin chemisette.

Preston Park Museum & Grounds,

Hi all,

I've removed the painting from its frame to take a closer look at the canvas. Unfortunately, it appears to have been crudely cut from its original canvas and glued onto this one, so the true back of the canvas is unable to be viewed. I did see what appeared to be a bit of an oddity at the bottom right, and I've taken a few photographs of it underneath a UV light after advice from an art conservator.

I'm not entirely sure if they show a partial signature and the numbers "18" or if it's merely a case of seeing what I'm hoping is there, but I've attached photographs here for you to see. I've gone over the whole painting with the light and have been unable to see any other points of interest.

4 attachments
Howard Jones,

Can the musical instrument help with the dating? Is this a harpsichord? Also the music she is playing is presented as a fairly substantial book and not just as a single sheet of musical notes.

Preston Park Museum & Grounds,


Our record states that the musical instrument is a square piano, which seems correct but could be wrong.

I've also found a 1761 painting of a lady named Sarah Robinson by Francis Cotes after a bit of research:

Sarah 'Burton' was known as Sarah Robinson after her marriage in 1785, so I wonder if in the past someone mistakenly thought that our painting was the one created by Cotes, since its paired painting of David Burton Fowler was also erroneously believed to be by him. Of course, the lady in the painting I've linked is certainly not the Sarah Robinson who lived in Preston Hall, but it may explain why our painting was thought to be by Cotes.

Jacinto Regalado,

If the sitter were the niece of a man born in 1736, she could hardly look this young c. 1815. Are the vital dates of the purported sitter known?

Preston Park Museum & Grounds,


Yes we do, Sarah was born in 1758 and died in 1828, the same year as her uncle, so you're correct that she definitely does not look the right age (57, if this is 1815).

Her daughter in law, Mary Stapylton, has a birth date of 1788, which does fit the sitter better in terms of age.

Jacinto Regalado,

So this is definitely not Sarah, then. Is there any substantial evidence for thinking this could be her daughter-in-law, other than her being of a suitable age?

Preston Park Museum & Grounds,

Sadly, none at all - to make this a bit more frustrating, Mary Stapylton only became Sarah's daughter in law in 1824, meaning it's not likely her either.

Our only evidence for it even being Sarah came from the donor, who donated 4 paintings: this one, the David Burton Fowler painting, and two of Sarah's male descendants through her other son and daughter-in-law, David Burton and Isabella Fawell. The other two paintings do depict the correct people, however, which is probably why the other two paintings were accepted without question.

On a side note, Isabella Fawell married David Burton, Sarah's eldest son, in 1813: perhaps this could be her, as the mother of the sitters in the other two paintings? This is just conjecture by this point: we're facing the sad realisation that there's really no substantial evidence for this painting or the one of David Burton Fowler.

Jacinto Regalado,

Well, this picture could be listed as "Portrait of a Young Woman at the Piano," followed by (possibly Isabella Fawell) if the collection wishes, with her vital dates if known. The artist field could be "F. Cotes (?)"

However, other contributors and the relevant Group Leaders may have different ideas or suggestions for the collection to consider.

Jacinto Regalado,

Naturally, the painting should be dated as discussed above.

I am a bit puzzled. In an earlier post (27 March), the attribution to Francis Cotes was rightly dismissed. So the artist field should not refer to Cotes. Better as unknown artist and, in view of the Canadian connections, I would not go as far as to say a British artist although it probably is. As to the sitter, Isabella Fawell would be too speculative without further evidence.

Jacinto Regalado,

I was going by the presence of "F. Cotes" on a plaque on the frame, which obviously cannot refer to the known Francis Cotes, but of course the plaque may be spurious (which is why I suggested the question mark). Similarly, the possibility that the sitter might be Isabella Fawell is based in tenuous grounds, so yes, to be rigorous, one would go with a strictly descriptive title and unknown artist, though I suppose a case could be made for Anglo-American School.

Unless further evidence is forthcoming, I propose to recommend closing this discussion at the end of the month on the basis that the artist is unknown and that there is insufficient evidence to identify the sitter. The various ideas suggested will form an addition to the museum's file for future reference.

Marcie Doran,

Regarding Sully, please take a look at this painting of a young girl at the spinet from 1810.

Thomas Sully (American, 1783–1872)
Miss Martha Levy at the Spinet, 1810
Oil on panel, 30 1/4 × 25 1/4 × 5 1/2 in. [framed]
Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 92.196

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The latest comparisons are regretfully not close enough to form a basis for an attribution. As such, subject to the input of the other group leaders and the collection, I recommend closing this three-month old discussion on the basis that the artist is unknown and that there is insufficient evidence to identify the sitter. The various ideas suggested will form an addition to the museum's file for future reference.