Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 19th C, South West England: Artists and Subjects 51 Further research is sought on the artist and date of this 19th-century portrait

DOR_BRC_BORGM_00071
Topic: Artist

This is a 19th century picture of a woman who died in 1919. It cannot possibly be after a painter who died in 1770. Why is this listed as after Francis Cotes?

Art UK: Christopher Wright, ‘British and Irish Paintings in Public Collections’ (2006), p. 271, ‘Mrs J. McEwan (Clara Ellen Cotes)’, Cat. 1935, no. 107 as ‘by a pupil’. https://bit.ly/30ufj9f

Could anyone suggest who the artist could be, give us information about the sitter and/or propose a date for the painting? Four closeups are attached.

Jacinto Regalado, Entry reviewed by Art UK

51 comments

Peter Nahum,

The dress looks 1830s to me (there are many more greater experts in this area than me). She would have to be living very provincially to be dressed in such an so old-fashioned manner, aged, if as I surmise, in her late 'teens.

There are so many little or unknown portrait painters before photography, that it is a very difficult task. I usually attribute such portraits to Margaret Sarah Carpenter. Are you absolutely sure about the sitter and it is not her mother or mother-in-law? Families often get it wrong. She could be in her early twenties.

Andrea Kollmann,

This publication may be a good starting point: Bulletin of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bornemouth. Vol. VII, no. 3, Sept. 1928. It seems to have a chapter about the painting. Could the collection provide a copy (it is not available online)?

Jacinto Regalado,

A costume expert should address the matter, but this looks more like c. 1860 to me, of a woman of around 20. It may be an engagement portrait, given the prominence of the ring on her left hand.

Jacinto Regalado,

A pupil of Cotes would have been born no later than the 1750s, which is still too early for this picture, and calling a painting "after artist X" implies it is a copy of a work by X, which is not possible in this case.

Martin Hopkinson,

Clara was the elder sister of Merton Russell Cotes, founder of the Bournemouth Gallery. She and her husband brought him up in Glasgow from 1842/3. So this portrait might be Scottish
She would have been very elderly indeed in 1919. So Peter Nahum may well be correct as to doubting if this portrait is of her. Or is the death date assigned to her mistaken?
Can the Russell Cotes provide us with a family tree?

Martin Hopkinson,

A biography of Merton Russsell Cotes was published as recently as last September - Paul Whitaker, 'The life of a salesman.Sir Merton Russell Cotes' - a paperback possibly published by its author available on amazon - not yet in the British Library
In addition also privately published is 'Home and Abroad. An Autobiography of an Octogenarian', For private circulation, Bournemouth, 1921 which has 200 illustrations including portraits

Martin Hopkinson,

John Graham-Gilbert was the leading Glasgow portrait painter of this period and he is a possibility as the artist. The exhibition catalogues of the Royal Scottish Academy should be checked. It is not by his younger rival Daniel Macnee. However, there were many Scottish portrait painters of this sort of standard, none of whose work has received serious study.

Whaley Turco,

The Body is moving one way the head another and not in a natural way. Either the sitter or the artist changed their mind about the pose or her head was plopped down on a pre painted body. Or More interesting yet, someone has painted a new head on an old painting. If you compare the head and hands you can clearly see that they are by different artists. With the hands on a much higher plain of talent.

Whaley Turco,

2 of John Graham Gilbert's portraits. A Husband and Wife. He's quite good. Notice the ladies pose and background. Not entirely the same but very close. What's really interesting is the background and hands of our painting Match the quality of these 2 paintings. https://www.mutualart.com/Artwork/Portrait-of-Archibald-Buchanan-of-Auchen/E176702D63B7A9DA Does anyone recognize the Craggy Peak in the background of our painting. It looks distinctive enough to set a location..

Malcolm Fowles,

A Clara McEwan died aged 94 and registered first quarter 1919 Birkenhead vol 8a page 929. Hence birth c 1824-5, aged 18 c. 1842-3.

Strangely, no British marriage record of a Clara Cotes even with surname variants around that time.

Keith Dalby-Oldham,

The only marriage I can find for a Clara Ellen Coates (sic) and James MacEwan took place in 1852 at St Martin in the Fields, which does not agree with her and her husband bringing Merton up in Glasgow from 1842/3 per Martin Hopkinson. Merton Russell Cotes married Annie Nelson Clark on 1 February 1860 in Hamilton, Lanarkshire.

Jacinto Regalado,

I don't think this is good enough for John Graham Gilbert. It looks less accomplished and more provincial.

Jacinto Regalado,

Could this possibly be Annie Nelson Clark instead of Clara Coates?

Malcolm Fowles,

I don't think that speculation about the sitter is worthwhile. Clara Ellen brought up Merton Russell Cotes (hyphenated later) from when he was seven, after their father died. She died in 1919, he in 1921. The title is precise.

The collection can be asked to tell us what it holds about the gift from Mrs Stebbing. I surmise that Mrs Stebbing would be a descendent of Clara or Merton.

The only mystery for me is the apparently silly attribution.

Jacinto Regalado,

Is the ring (of which a close-up is provided above) consistent with an engagement ring, or could it be a wedding ring?

Malcolm Fowles,

Is the matching surname of the sitter and supposed artist a coincidence or a major clue? Cotes wasn't a common name, judging from the BMD records.

One line of research would be to link the 1726 Francis to either a Francis descendent or to a painter descendent. These could be represented deliberately or incompetently as being the ancestor. The meaning of "after" is a bit fluid.

Jacinto Regalado,

I suppose "after" is, or can be, as fluid as one wishes to make it, but for me, or in my usage of it, it only means a copy of a work by someone else (which may or may not be extant).

Pamela Gerrish Nunn,

I agree with Peter about the artist - as soon as I saw the image, I thought "Mrs Carpenter"...

Jacinto Regalado,

Richard, there is a close-up of the background above. It does not look like Edinburgh Castle to me.

Osmund Bullock,

I'm pretty sure that the dress in the portrait is later than the 1830s - the sleeves then would have been much fuller than this (even for a teenager). And the ring is on the wrong finger for an engagement or wedding one.

Martin (or Malcolm), what is the source for the information that Merton Russell Cotes (I don't think he ever hyphenated it himself) was brought up by Clara and her husband in Glasgow from 1842/3, when he was seven, after their father died? The story appears to be slightly confused, as I will try and show.

Osmund Bullock,

Clara and Merton were two of the nine children of Samuel and Elizabeth Coates [sic] of Wolverhampton, Staffs. Samuel and Elizabeth (nee Law) were married at W'hampton, St Peter, on 4 May 1822, and their first child Ann was christened at the same church exactly three days later. Further ones arrived in rapid order, and were baptised at St Peter's in June 1823 (Saml Benjamin), Nov 1824 (Emily), Jan 1826 (Mary Ann), Nov 1829 (Georgi[a]na), July 1831 (Alfred Wm), Apr 1833 (Charlotte Jane), June 1835 (Merton Russell - born 8 May) and May 1837 (Henrietta Elizabeth). The only one missing is Clara Ellen, but fortunately she appears with her family in the (June) 1841 Census, where her age is given as 13 - see attached. *It is therefore likely that she was born and christened during the 1827-28 gap in the baptism sequence* (the relevant volume seems to be missing) - this is later than the years implied in the 1911 Census (1825-6) and at death (1824-5), earlier than that from the 1861 census (1831-2), but concurs with the censuses of 1891 and 1901 as well as 1841.

Their father Samuel is during his lifetime variously described as 'Ironmonger' (1822), 'Cutler' (1823) and thereafter 'Factor' - in C19th England this meant an agent or middleman of various different types in trade and manufacture. Later, though, his son Merton (in his 1860 Scottish marriage record - attached) perhaps rather inflates his status to 'Ironmaster' - and by then Merton has changed the spelling of his name to 'Cotes'. His eldest sister Ann is a witness at the wedding, but she is 'Coates'. It is important to realise that Merton was a self-made man, though it was probably his wife (a merchant's daughter) who brought him enough capital to begin to do so. I will come to this again shortly, as it may be relevant to the portrait under discussion.

Father Samuel does not seem to have been well off, and his early death (before 1841) doubtless exacerbated matters. His three sons all had inauspicious professional beginnings: Samuel junr & Alfred got nowhere much (and probably never married) - they were pretty lowly clerks/bookkeepers, one became unemployed in later years - and in 1861 Merton was just a travelling salesman for a hat & cap manufacturer.

Osmund Bullock,

Unfortunately I can find no sign of any of the family in the 1851 Census, so exactly who was taking care of whom and where is unknown. But it seems quite possible that Clara did indeed take care of her younger brother Merton from around 1842, but she was just 14 when she began to do so - perhaps by then their mother Elizabeth had also died. Or might 1842 be an error for 1852, and his age 17 not 7? The London marriage to James McEwan in 1852 is certainly our Clara (though I can find no church wedding recorded), and she and James did indeed move up to Glasgow. Sadly, though, he died there in 1857, leaving her a none-too-wealthy widow at the age of 30 - James had also been a salesman, and in the 1861 Census Clara is still in Glasgow (her younger sister Georgina is with her), but is taking in lodgers.

So unless there was some wealthier friend or relation involved in looking after the family later in the 1840s - perfectly possible, but we are without any evidence - this is not a set of circumstances, or a class of people, where one would expect to find any family portrait, let alone one of reasonable quality. There may well be an explanation within one or other of the biographies of Merton Russell Cotes; but if not one is left wondering whether the portrait really is an authentic and contemporary one of his sister - he did not even begin to make his fortune until the 1870s (when he moved into the wine and hotel trades in Glasgow - the latter apparently with his sister...thanks for that, Kieran).

Having said that, I am happy with a mid-1840s date for the work, which would suit a teenage Clara.

Jacinto Regalado,

You may be correct, Osmund, but we need a dress expert like Lou Taylor for more exact or definitive dating.

Martin Hopkinson,

Osmond, according to the Art Gallery itself The Russell Cotes family 2015/04 site not accessible this morning The-Russell-Cotes-family1.pdf

Regarding the donor of the picture under discussion. The Rusell Cotes Museum website says: In 1926, in order to fulfil their parents’ wishes, an additional, and unique-shaped art gallery – Gallery IV – was opened and given to the town by Herbert Russell-Cotes and Ella Stebbing (née Russell-Cotes).

Also, see this work by Charles Jones of 1867 at the Russell Cotes Museum given by "Mrs Stebbing and H. Russell Cotes" in 1926. https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/bringing-home-the-deer-58460

Whaley Turco,

There a line around the neck. Where it was 19th century photoshopped on. From there down is one artist. From there up is another artist. The Lower artist is the better of the two.

Jacinto Regalado is correct this painting should not be listed as after Francis Cotes. I can only think that this comes from the original PCF Dorset project when terminology was limited. Our internal records have always listed this work as being by a follower or 'pupil' of Francis Cotes (see attached RCAGM Bulletin).

Other commentators are correct - the donor was the daughter of Sir Merton Russell-Cotes and it is from her and her brother we received a number of items not given initially as part of the Deed of Gift establishing the museum in 1921.

As has been said Clara was important in Sir Merton's life as she and her husband took him and his widowed mother in thus setting in motion a series of events/encounters ending with Merton meeting Annie and falling in love. For more details I recommend the book 'The Art of a Salesman - The Life of Sir Merton Russell-Cotes' by Paul Whittaker. Paul has managed to unpick Sir Merton's difficult autobiography, 'Home and Abroad', compare it to factual sources and shine some light into previously very dark corners.

Members of the Cotes/Coates family seem to have taken different approaches to the spelling of their name. Sir Merton re-branded himself by hyphenating his middle name but his son, Herbert, did not. Merton of course claimed a dubious/tenuous familial relationship to Frances Cotes and I wonder if this where the identification of the artist comes from originally.

I will check the Object History File again but we have no information on this painting other than the Bulletin. We do know that following Herbert's suicide his widow burnt the family papers that she had - presumably including any collection provenance material. I have built up a fairly comprehensive listing of the Russell-Cotes' art collection before our establishment based on sale records and press articles which includes those artworks which did not come to us. There are no works matching this one listed but that is perhaps not surprising as it was probably regarded as a personal/family item.

Sadly the painting has long since lost its frame and was wax lined in the 1960s/70s. The stretcher seems original to me but has no labels or inscriptions on it.

If the group to come to a consensus about how the artist of this painting is to be referenced I will happy amend the record on our database as well as on the Art UK site. I would prefer something other than 'British School' but if that is where we have to leave it then so be it.

Duncan Walker - Curator, RCAGM

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Malcolm Fowles,

I think that the suggestion of two artists has to be followed up.

I realise that odd features may be due to a lack of artistic skill or conversely to deliberate exaggeration. However, there is not only a darker line on the neck but also a lighter band below it; the former best seen in the unenlarged image, the latter in the enlargement. And am I just imagining hints of inconsistent skin tone elsewhere?

More striking to me, the head 'feels' too big. This feeling is reinforced if you compare the chin-to-hairline distance with the smaller fingertip-to-heel of palm. In standard proportions these are the same.

This hypothesis might be refuted by close study of brushwork or supported by a dating of the dress that is impossible for Clara in her teens. I daren't suggest anything more forensic.

Reading about Merton, he was obviously quite a guy, one who might happily pay for an old drawing of his dearest sister to be worked up on another portrait.

Jacinto Regalado,

"Sarah Burton" may have been painted in 1840, but the sitter looks clearly earlier, meaning early 19th century.

Jacinto Regalado,

In our picture, the figure above the dress does look somewhat disproportionately larger than the part below that, but the portraitist may have been primarily a face painter who merely filled in the rest in a more or less perfunctory fashion.

Malcolm Fowles,

That could be so Jacinto, but on the other hand what do you and others feel about Whaley's assertion that the lower painting is finer than the face? Your excellent enlargements don't say "perfunctory" to me, but I'm only an amateur painter.

Martin Hopkinson,

The Francis Cotes attribution seems to have arisen through a confusion with a genuine Cotes of a woman illustrated in Merton Russell Cotes' autobiography opp., p.24
In the same book one finds a contemporary photograph of our sitter opp. p.80

pp.20. 69 On James McEwan of Godrey, Paterson & Co., Calico Printers & Turkey-red dyers, Glasgow and Manchester
There is no mention of MRC being only 7 when the McEwans took care of him

The genuine Cotes might be a portrait of an earlier James MacEwan's daughter as it is called 'portrait of James MacWan's daughter
The archives of the Art Gallery might throw light on this

Jacinto Regalado,

The face and hair, to me, are clearly better done, relatively speaking, than the dress and hands. The lace is crude, stiff and amateurish, and the fingers look too long and too thick, disproportionately larger than the rest of the hands. The background details are barely sketched in. I suppose it makes sense that a minor provincial portraitist would focus on the head or likeness as the clearly critical element, and give much less importance or attention to everything else.

Martin Hopkinson,

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery must have an index to the sitters in works of art in their collection [including portrait prints and drawings] - nothing as yet online of this sort
The National Library of Scotland should have something similar

Jacinto Regalado,

Unless the picture was painted after the fact, the year of birth would put it at ca. latter 1840s and no later than 1852 when she married, given the absence of a wedding ring. Where was she living before she married and moved to Glasgow? In London?

Whaley Turco,

Whether you think the Upper is a finer painting than the lower is neither here nor there. The fact that they are so different is the main point. I'd love to see an Xray of this painting. I'd bet 10 Bob (did i say that right) that there's another painting under there. And it could be either the upper or the lower.

Whaley Turco,

The Mountain May be this. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buachaille_Etive_Mòr#/media/File:Buchaille_etive_mor.jpg We are looking at its northeast face. Which would place the sitter somewhere between Glasgow and INverness. Buachaille Etive Mòr is the Name of the Mountain. Here's it's Wiki Page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buachaille_Etive_Mòr Buachaille Etive Mòr (Scottish Gaelic: Buachaille Èite Mòr, meaning "the herdsman of Etive"), generally known to climbers simply as The Buachaille, is a mountain at the head of Glen Etive in the Highlands of Scotland. Its pyramidal form, as seen from the A82 road when travelling towards Glen Coe, makes it one of the most recognisable mountains in Scotland, and one of the most depicted on postcards and calendars.

Paul Whittaker,

From my own research, I think it’s highly likely that the picture was painted long after the event. The portraits of Russell-Cotes's mother (Mrs Samuel Cotes) and father-in-law (John King Clark) by Frank Richards, an artist based in Bournemouth in the early 1900s, must have been commissioned in retrospect, as the source photographs - or something akin to them - appear in R-C’s autobiography. Richards was not even a teenager at the time the two subjects died. Both of these pictures are on ArtUK. I also suspect that the portraits by unknown artists of Samuel Cotes (R-C’s father) and Benjamin Coates (his great-uncle) are retrospective efforts. Again, these are on ArtUK. As mentioned by Duncan Walker, the family history is confused by the inaccuracy in R-C's autobiography, hence my attempt to make sense of it in my book.

Jacinto Regalado,

I would suggest "Clara Ellen Cotes, Mrs James McEwan (c. 1828-1919), British School, c. 1840s or later"

Osmund Bullock,

Martin, re Merton having been seven when the McEwans began looking after him, I think you may have misunderstood what it says in the Russell-Cotes gallery's biog (which I eventually found online here https://bit.ly/2Nu3JWa - you must get someone to teach you to make links, it would save a lot of searching time!). What it actually says is "His father died intestate when Merton was 7 years old and the entire estate was inherited by his eldest brother. Merton was cared for by his sister, Clara, and her husband, James MacEwan, who raised and educated him in Glasgow." The two sentences may seem to follow on, but they don’t! He was indeed in his seventh year when his father died (in Jan 1842), and Samuel Benjamin may well have inherited such estate as there was (not as much as Merton implied); and he was indeed cared for / raised / educated by Clara and James in Glasgow. But this must have only started after their marriage in 1852, when Merton was already 17.

As for the painting itself, it's impossible to tell what's going on as the over-painting is so extensive. Look at the head and shoulders high-res – it is smooth and unblemished, with not a hint of any signs of age. The same is true in other areas, though one can see tiny traces of old crackelure here and there. The background scene is vague and anodyne – I doubt it's a specific mountain, more a generic 'Scottish view' – and like the face, it looks like it was painted yesterday. I implied previously that this might not be an authentic and contemporary image of the supposed sitter, and I'm now even more suspicious. I tend to agree that it is likely a complete concoction, though quite possibly with the remains of a genuine portrait under there somewhere.

Osmund Bullock,

Good to hear from you, Mr Whittaker. You may well have done much of this yourself already (I’ve not seen your book), but I have managed to establish quite a bit about his father (who was certainly not a J.P. as later claimed), and to track the movements of several of Merton’s siblings after his father’s death – the period that Merton conveniently omits in his bizarre jumble of a book (https://bit.ly/3643p6S).

Much of the description of his childhood, his family and their distinguished connections is inaccurate, confused and/or deliberately misleading, as you will have discovered. By the early 1850s one of the girls, Mary Ann, was a servant with a family in Wolverhampton, while Clara, our “sitter”, seems to have been running a tobacconists’ shop about a mile from where her eldest brother, Samuel junr, was living in Birkenhead; and then by the following year (1851) she was working as a barmaid in a fairly upmarket hotel in Manchester hotel – perhaps that’s where she met James McEwan! I’ll post more detail on all this in the next couple of days, if anyone’s interested – it’s relevant inasmuch as it shows how unconcerned Merton was about the facts, and how anxious he was to create a new past for himself.

Paul Whittaker,

Osmund Bullock, it's great to hear from someone who's dug into the background of Merton and his family. I salute you if you've read Home and Abroad from cover to cover - it's certainly an epic, but not in a readable sense. I called my book 'The Art of a Salesman' even though there's very little about art in it - I don't know much about the subject, to be honest - but because Merton was a salesman in every sense of the word and made it into something of an art form. It may be best to continue this discussion offline if you'd like to share knowledge, as I realise it may not be of interest to other contributors. I've only just signed up to this site and can't see a way to contact members directly, but I'm sure we can find a way to make contact if you'd like to take it further,

Osmund Bullock,

Paul, I haven't read even the first volume in its entirety, but I attempted to extract and make sense of most of the genealogical and early biographical content he gives there, including the dodgy portrait captions.

Art UK/Art Detective doesn't have a facility for direct contact via the site (and email addresses may not be given); but they will, I'm sure, be happy to forward an email on to me. Marion, I hereby give you permission to do so!

Whaley Turco,

Osmund, as for the Mountain I would usually agree with you. But the one in our painting was so specifically painted that I thought it matchable. Oddly enough the people's of your Fair Isles are obsessed with their peaks. They Are all well documented and photographed. The One I posted was the only one that hadn't been rounded off by man or mother nature and actually appeared to be of the same shape.. The area around it has been a well known tourist destination for the bourgeois since 1800. Quite Possibly our painting was done from a room overlooking it.

Jacinto Regalado,

How about "Purported Portrait of Clara Ellen Cotes (c. 1828-1919), British School," and then give additional information in a note?

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