Cosway's portrait miniatures reflect the elegant gloss of an often more scandalous age. The subject is Maria Fitzherbert, morganatic wife of George, Prince of Wales (later George IV), a friend and patron of the artist. Of Catholic, and worse still, "common" stock, Mrs Fitzherbert "twice a widow before she was 25" was not considered a suitable match for the heir to the throne. After much coaxing, culminating in a staged suicide attempt by the persistent prince, the "irreproachable Fitzherbert" finally succumbed. In 1785 they were united in a clandestine marriage officiated by the Revd Robert Butt, former vicar of Twickenham, who was allegedly granted release from the Fleet prison in order to perform the ceremony. The newly-weds honeymooned at Ormeley Lodge, Ham Common.
Maria was subseqently replaced by the much despised, but at least blue-blooded, Caroline of Brunswick. At the time of the wedding, Mrs Fitzherbert stayed at Marble Hill House which she leased during the mid 1790s. Ironically it had been built for the mistress of George II, Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk (1688-1767). Despite a number of mistresses, George IV considered Mrs Fitzherbert his true "wife in the eyes of God". The eyes of the law begged to differ.
The king treasured the portrait miniature from which this engraving was taken and wore it constantly around his neck. At his specific request he was buried with it, although a copy survives at Windsor Castle.
Updated: 3 August 2009