Mary Moser (1744-1819) was “one of the most celebrated women artists of 18th-century Britain,” yet today she’s mostly overlooked. Along with Angelica Kauffmann, Mary Moser was one of only two female founding members of 36 member Royal Academy. It would be more than 115 years until the next woman, Dame Laura Knight, would be invited to become a member.
Although Moser specialised in flower-painting, which was at the bottom of the hierarchy of academic art, her ambition for professional standing is nevertheless conveyed in this portrait which shows her at work on an oil painting. By placing her at an easel, dressed in generic painter’s robes, it refers to a tradition of portraits of (male) artists dating back to the Renaissance. But at a time when most male artists asserted their academic status by stressing the intellectual rather than the technical aspects of their work, the oil palette that Moser holds also distinguishes her from the many women amateurs who practised flower-painting in the less taxing medium of watercolour. The close focus, dramatic colours and sidelong glance also emphasised that her professional status did not need to compromise her femininity.
Moser’s flower paintings are less a celebration of the wonders of God’s creation but a careful observation of nature. Flowers were a popular subject and London print sellers sold countless decorative flower prints, depicting them in baskets, vases, or tied in bouquets for use as pattern books for ladies to embroider or draw, for glass painting, japan work or even for copying onto undecorated china-in-the-white. By the later part of the eighteenth-century, drawing masters specialising in teaching this type of painting were much in demand and many women who had given up flower painting on their marriage found it a useful means of support when they lost their husbands.
Due in part to her father’s royal connections, Moser received several commissions from King George and Queen Charlotte. The most prestigious and famous of those commissions was a floral decorative scheme for the Frogmore House in the 1790s. The “prestigious and lucrative commission” Moser was paid £900 which made Moser “the envy of her male colleagues.”
She married remarkably late in life when she was 49 years old. The man she chose was a man called Hugh Lloyd. It was also one of her last professional works, as she retired upon her marriage in 1793. However, she did not pack up her paint box and retire to the country with her new husband and a cat. Her marriage it seems did not live up to her expectations and within six months she was on a sketching tour of Europe with miniaturist Richard Cosway.
Cosway left his Anglo-Italian artist and composer wife Maria Hadfield who was 20 years Moser’s junior. Cosway was a “well known as a libertine and commonly described as resembling a monkey.” The film Jefferson in Paris which dramatises Maria Cosway’s own romance with the future American President Thomas Jefferson depicts Richard Cosway as effeminate but it seems he was anything but in bed. His diary entries for the time he spent with Mary Moser describe a hot and steamy affair.
Richard Cosway – Self Portrait
Mary Moser’s death in 1819 marked the start of a long stretch of time when, despite no explicit ban, women remained excluded from the Academy. Lady Elizabeth Butler, renowned at the time for her paintings that reported the realities of the Crimean War, came close to becoming a member in 1871 but according to committee reports, she missed out by a mere one vote. It wasn’t until 1936 that Dame Laura Knight became the next woman to be fully elected as an Academician, and although having previously had her work rejected by the Academy on grounds of embarrassing the art establishment with what a critic described as “vulgar” and “obviously an exercise” for a self-portrait, she helped pave the way for greater recognition of women in the arts and the continuation of female membership at the Academy.
Illustrations: Study of flowers; roses, marigolds and stocks Watercolour, The British Museum
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29 Also available on: