FRANCIS COTES (1726-1770)
Richard Myddleton MP (c. 1760=65)
Oil on canvas (127 x 101 cm)
National Museum of Wales
Richard Myddelton (1726-1795) could well be considered the quintessential MP, as he did not do anything at all, mind you MPs in those days were not paid the obscene amounts of money their counterparts get today (for doing nothing in return) not to mention the undeserved perks they also enjoy in these decadent times.
Richard Myddleton is here because of Francis Cotes to whom we owe this beautiful portrait. The picture shows why by the 1760s he was a serious competitor to Gainsborough and Reynolds. In 1763, as proof of his success, he took a lease of a fine house in Cavendish Square, then a very fashionable and expensive address. The fact the Cotes turned more to oils in the 1760s was a logical consequence of his growing popularity, and the higher prices demanded for oil paintings. By 1766 Cotes was charging 25 guineas for a head in pastel whereas for oils his prices were 20 guineas for a head, 40 for a half-length and 80 for a full-length.
However, in spite of the demand for oil paintings Cotes’ reputation as a superb pastellist was such that he carried on executing portraits in this media until the end of his life. He exhibited 18 pictures in crayons at the Royal Academy’s exhibitions of 1769 and 1770. Most of his production was pastels, and due to the unfair perception that somehow this is an inferior kind of genre, he has not been fully appreciated as the fine artist he was. Even the rather spiteful art critic John Williams (1763-1818) who wrote under the pseudonym of Anthony Pasquin and who disliked pastels recognized Cotes as “…perhaps the best painter in crayons that was ever born. he was infinitely superior to Rosalba; he had a more comprehensive mind and a finer taste…” (Neill Jeffares: “Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800”)
Richard Myddelton paid obviously great attention to his persona as his very elegant, and expensive, attire suggests. He was what was known in the 18th century as “a coxcomb” or “a popinjay”. Today we would call him a fop or a dandy, that is a man obsessed about his clothes and appearance. His wife was very much alike, according to the National Museum of Wales “…he and his wife, also painted by Cotes, nearly ruined themselves buying fashionable luxuries and remodelling the castle and its grounds.”
He was born the eldest son of John Myddelton of Chirk Castle, Denbighshire. He was educated at Eton and later at St. John’s College, Oxford. Being of a frivolous nature, he did not care for anything. Unlike most of his counterparts, he did not travel to Italy neither seemed to have any interest in art or antiquities. Parliamentary records show that he was an MP from 1747 to 1788 and that during his last twenty years in the House he hardly ever attended. His only ambition was an English peerage for which he applied, unsuccessfully, in 1754 and again in 1761.
Besides his great technical skill to reproduce the textures of different fabrics, Cotes, like all gifted portraitists, managed to grasp his sitter’s nature and in doing so, he succeeded in capturing the superficiality of this useless member of the gentry who had all its faults and none of its qualities. From the aesthetical point of view as well as the psychological one, this is an excellent portrait.