We use cookies to improve your experience online. By using our website, you agree to the use of cookies as described in our cookies policy.

Maria Cosway (1760 - 1838)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

Maria Hadfield was the eldest child of Charles Hadfield and Isabella Pocock, owners of a hotel in Florence. Hadfield attended a convent in Florence and was precociously talented in music and drawing. At the age of 13, she came under the tutelage of Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), who encouraged her artistic ability and introduced her to the world of European artists, many of whom she met when they travelled through Florence, including the collector Charles Townley (1737-1805).

Hadfield honed her skills by making copies of works from the Uffizi by artists including Correggio, Rubens and even Sir Joshua Reynolds. Her painting gained significant recognition, leading to her election in 1778 to the Florentine Accademia del Disegno. Between 1777 and 1779 Hadfield made various trips to Rome and Naples, extending her network of artistic friends and supporters and charming those who met her through her manners and talents.

Hadfield’s had father died in 1776, leading her mother to relinquish the hotel business and move back to England with Hadfield’s younger siblings. Hadfield was summoned by her mother to London in 1779 and, with some reluctance, she travelled to London to rejoin her family and establish herself there. Hadfield was instantly well connected, and with letters of recommendation she was introduced to figures such Reynolds and Angelica Kauffman.

While she was welcomed by London artistic circles, living independently as a women painter was extremely difficult in the late 18th century. Shortly after her arrival in London, Hadfield had been introduced to the respected artist Richard Cosway who could offer financial security while also increasing her artistic connections. They were married in January 1781 at St. George’s, Hanover Square.

Throughout the 1780s, the Cosways were among the most fashionable couples in London society. As well as exhibiting history scenes and portraits at the Royal Academy Annual Exhibitions, Maria also hosted musical soirees for elite and artistic friends and published her musical compositions. In 1786 the Cosways visited Paris, where Maria was introduced to Thomas Jefferson, then American minister to France. This was the beginning of a friendship and correspondence that lasted several decades, a relationship that elicited great affection on both sides.

Although Maria’s paintings were well received in London society, her career was restricted by her husband’s attitude towards her, particularly his refusal to let her sell her works. She later revealed that she felt this prevented her artistic progression and resulted in her losing some of the skills she had developed in her early years in Italy.

Maria gave birth to her only daughter, Louisa Paolina Angelica, in May 1790 but suffered poor health in the months that followed. She was advised to travel to Italy for her recovery, and she arrived in Venice in September 1790, leaving her husband and young daughter in London. Maria remained in Italy for four years only returning to London in 1794. Tragically, her daughter Louisa died in 1796, devastating the Cosways in their grief.

As a form of consolation, Maria turned increasingly to her Catholic faith and focussed her energies on girls’ education, while Richard immersed himself in mysticism and magic. At the turn of the century, Maria also found success with several of her prints published by the printseller Rudolph Ackermann and undertook a major project making etchings of the old master paintings at the Louvre (1801-03) which had been stolen by French armies during the recent Napoleonic Wars.

During her time in Paris, Maria became acquainted with members of the Bonaparte family, under whose patronage she was able to establish a girls’ school at Lyons in 1803, one of her long-term ambitions. The school offered religious and liberal education, promoting the study of art and music for girls. In 1809, Maria moved to Lombardy in Italy to be closer to her sister and established another school at Lodi in 1812.

Maria returned to London in 1817 to care for her husband, whose mental and physical health was deteriorating. Richard Cosway died in 1821, and Maria organised sales and auctions of her husband’s work. Maria used a portion of the funds raised for an endowment of her school at Lodi, which became a pioneering establishment for girls’ education in Italy. After the Austrian Emperor and Empress visited the school in the early 1830s (by which time Lombardy had come under Austrian rule), Maria was made a baroness, in 1834.

Maria remained in Lodi for the rest of her life, where she died in 1838 and was buried in the church adjoining the school.

RA Collections Decolonial Research Project - Extended Case Study

Throughout the 1780s, Maria and Richard Cosway established themselves at the centre of London high society, exhibiting works at the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibition, hosting musical soirées for fashionable company, painting portraits of eminent individuals and even publishing original music compositions.

In 1784, the Cosways moved to a grand apartment in Schomberg House on Pall Mall. It was around this time that they began to employ a Black servant, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (c.1757–c.1791), also known as John Stuart. Cugoano was born in modern-day Ghana; he was captured by African traders in 1770, sold into enslavement to Europeans and trafficked across the Atlantic to Grenada. After two years of enforced labour in Grenada, Cugoano was taken to England by his owner, a merchant called Alexander Campbell. The circumstances in which Cugoano regained his freedom are unclear, but it was possibly linked to the judgement in the Somerset case of 1772, in which the judge ruled that ‘no master ever was allowed here (in England) to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service…therefore the man must be discharged’. This was taken by some supporters of abolition as proving that enslavement had no legal standing on English soil (see Notes, 1).

Cugoano was an influential campaigner calling for abolition of the slave trade and the end of enslavement of Africans. Through his employment with the Cosways, he met several notable artists and public figures including King George III, the Prince of Wales, and Sir Edmund Burke, to whom he petitioned and wrote letters calling on their support for abolition. In 1786, with another Afro-Briton William Green, he appealed to the anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp (1735–1813) to prevent a man named Harry Demane from being forced into slavery in the West Indies. Cugoano published a treatise entitled Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in 1787. A shorter version of the book was published in 1791, with subscribers including prominent artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, James Northcote and Joseph Nollekens, indicating their support of Cugoano’s mission (see Notes, 2). Richard Cosway also subscribed to the volume, and Schomberg House was listed as a place where potential readers could acquire a copy of the 1787 edition (See Notes, 3). These considerations imply that the Cosways were supportive of ending enslavement.

Cugoano was portrayed by Richard Cosway in an etching from 1784, showing the artist and his wife supposedly in the garden of Schomberg House. It is difficult to clearly interpret Cosway’s intentions for including Cugoano in this intimate marital self-portrait. On the one hand, it implies that Cosway wanted to be associated with Cugoano, who is depicted as himself, rather than as a generalised ‘type’. However, it was not unusual for eminent figures to be portrayed with Black attendants as a statement of their wealth and sophistication (see Notes, 4). In this context, Black people were associated with the riches of the empire and ‘exotic’ cultures, aspirational attributes for wealthy Georgians. Cugoano’s presence in this scene was possibly intended to increase the Cosways’ social standing. Unlike similar contemporary works, though, Cugoano is shown at the centre of this composition, apparently presented on an equal standing with the Cosways. The Royal Collection Trust suggests that Cugoano ‘interacts with them elegantly rather than subserviently, standing over Maria and handing her a bunch of grapes as if he were an angel in a composition of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ (see Notes, 5).

Another matter that connects the Cosways with enslavement stems from Maria’s friendship with Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) that began in 1786. Maria initially met Jefferson while on a trip to Paris, where he was the American minister to France. He formed an attachment to Maria and wrote a moving account of his feelings for her in a letter of October 1786. They corresponded frequently and Maria visited Jefferson again in Paris in 1787. Jefferson nevertheless kept an engraving of Maria at his estate in Monticello and Maria kept the portrait of Jefferson by John Trumbull in her residence at Lodi, where she lived following the death of her husband (see Notes, 6). Jefferson owned enslaved people, many of whom undertook enforced labour at Monticello, both on the tobacco plantation and on the construction of the now-famous house. Maria’s personal affection for Jefferson adds a layer of complexity to our understanding of her opinion of enslavement. In one letter to Jefferson from 1822, she describes her desire to visit ‘your charming Monticello’ where she knew enslaved people were kept. Passive acceptance of Jefferson’s personal involvement in slavery suggests that she did not consider this as incompatible with her support and employment of the anti-slavery campaigner Cugoano.

It is also worth noting that Maria’s brother, the architect George Hadfield (1763-1826) designed many buildings in America including Arlington House, Virginia, built for the plantation owner and author George Washington Parke Custis. Custis owned hundreds of enslaved people, mostly in the state of Virginia. Maria somewhat lost touch with her brother after his move to America in 1795 and would not have personally benefited from such commissions (see Notes, 7). However, this example underlines how the artistic sphere at this time was closely bound up with profits from enslavement.


  1. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/slave_free.htm (accessed 1 March 2022).

  2. Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and sentiments on the evil or slavery; Or, the nature of servitude as admitted by the law of God, compared to the modern slavery of the Africans in the West-Indies; in an answer to the advocates for slavery and oppression. Addressed to the sons of Africa, by a native (London, 1791); https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CB0126566527/ECCO?u=lonlib&sid=bookmark-ECCO&xid=f994b30d&pg=1 (accessed 1 March 2022).

  3. Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species. Humbly submited to the inhabitants of Great-Britain by Ottabah Cugoano, a native of Africa (London 1787); https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CB0127577840/ECCO?u=lonlib&sid=bookmark-ECCO&xid=5e27d67b&pg=1 (accessed 1 March 2022).

  4. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/silver-service-slavery-the-black-presence-in-the-white-home/ (accessed 1 March 2022).

  5. https://www.rct.uk/collection/653010/a-self-portrait-with-maria-cosway-and-ottobah-cugoano (accessed 1 March 2022).

  6. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/maria-cosway-engraving (accessed 1 March 2022).

  7. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-2944 (accessed 1 March 2022).

Relevant ODNB entries

Lloyd, Stephen. “Cosway, Richard (bap. 1742, d. 1821), artist and collector.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-6383

Lloyd, Stephen. “Cosway [née Hadfield], Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia, Baroness Cosway in the nobility of the Austrian empire (1760–1838), history painter and educationist.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-6382

Carretta, Vincent. “Cugoano, Ottobah [John Stuart] b. 1757?, slavery abolitionist and writer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-59531

Darley, Gillian. “Hadfield, George (1763–1826), architect.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-11854


Born: 1760

Died: 1838

Gender: Female

Works associated with Maria Cosway in the RA Collection

2 results

Associated books

3 results

Associated archives

19 results