Mary Shirley Spencer

Richard Cosway


This winsome eighteenth century portrait shows a young girl with long blonde curls wearing a white frill-edged dress with narrow sleeves and a wide blue ribbon sash tied at the back. Set against a blue sky background, she is traditionally identified as Mary Spencer Shirley.

Mary Spencer Shirley was born in 1784 in Cromhall, Gloucester to Edward Shirley of Cockthorpe Hall and his heiress wife Hannah Spencer Rock. Aged 26 in 1810, she married her first cousin John Rock Grosett who had served briefly in the army and whose father had substantial business interests in Portugal and Jamaica. The young couple settled at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, a quirky country house now owned by the National Trust. Over the next ten years Mary gave birth to five sons and two daughters. She died in 1820, aged just 36, very possibly in childbirth. Her widowed husband later re-married and added another son to the family.

In fine condition, the portrait is set in a gold frame, the reverse glazed to show attractive sprays of dark hair laid on foiled opalescent glass with gold wire and seed pearls. The initials JW are picked out in seed pearls within a heart-shaped glass plaque. As the initials do not match the sitter’s name, this would suggest that the miniature has been re-framed or re-backed at some point.

Richard Cosway (1742-1821) and his wife Maria were the arbiters of Regency fashion and their studio was like a magnet for the fashionable and would-be fashionable of London society. Flamboyant in his own dress, Cosway was an excellent self-promoter and frequented public events such as the theatre and art sales just to be seen and admired.


Item Ref. 9123

Size: framed, 80 x 67mm + bail

Provenance: UK Private Collection