MICHAEL DAHL (SWEDISH 1659-1743)
THE HON. MRS. THEODORA COWPER, C. 1710
Oil on canvas
125 x 95cm (49 x 37¼ in.)
The Hon. Spencer Cowper, Hertingfordbury Park
Thence by descent,
Henry Cowper, Tewin Water, Hertfordshire
The Rev. Henry Madan Pratt, by 1904, Southern House, Cheltenham (Inherited from the above)
Sale, Christie's, London, The Rev. Henry Madan Pratt Sale, 23 May 1930, lot 151 (as Kneller)
Private Collection, London
Sale, Sotheby's, London, 11 May 1932, Lot 66 (As Kneller)
Frost and Reed, Bristol and London
Sale, Christie's, London, 10 March 1939, Lot 40 (as Kneller)
Private Collection, France
Michael Dahl painted this majestic portrait of the Hon. Mrs. Theodora Cowper around 1710, whilst the artist was at the height of his popularity amongst the elite in London society. The confident brush work and soft skin tones are typical of Dahl's work of this period and can be easily dated to c. 1710 when looking at the loose draperies and elevated hair. The sitter was born Theodora Kirk and firstly married Joseph Stepney MP in 1693. Her husband was the first cousin of John Stepney, 4th Bt. and Justina van Dyck, the only daughter of the great artist Sir Anthony van Dyck. After the death of her first husband in 1725, Theodora married the Hon. Spencer Cowper, MP and Chief Justice at the court in Chester. Spencer's brother William was the first Lord High Chancellor and had been made 1st Earl Cowper in 1718.
Although Spencer and Theodora had no children together, it is clear to see the affection she held for her sons-in-law as she left her estate, including a 3% ownership share of the Bank of England, almost entirely to them. This portrait is also mentioned in her will, dating from 1750, noting that she wished to leave it to her husband's youngest son, the Reverend John Cowper. As John had no children it then passed to Spencer's other son William, whose family it remained until it was sold in 1930.
This portrait is particularly unusual within Dahl's oeuvre for the fact that it depicts the sitter in the allegorical guise as Diana, goddess of the hunt. Dahl rarely painted his sitters in allegorical guises and in this instance, it is almost certain that the artist took inspiration from Sir Peter Lely's portrait of Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond, located in the Royal Collection. Lely's portrait of Frances Stuart was part of the famed Windsor Beauties series and would have been widely known. The goddess Diana, also known by the Greek name Artemis, was associated with elegance and purity and is often shown holding a bow with a crescent moon on her head, both attributes that Dahl has included in this portrait. Dahl closely echo's Lely's composition, however in turning Theodora more to the viewer he endows a greater sense of grace and poise. The rich landscape in the background is no doubt emblematic of an English Arcadian scene that had become the favoured setting for aristocratic sitters from the time of van Dyck in the previous century.