Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons

As with many of Reynolds's group portraits the design is based on a composition taken from an historical source. In this case the painting is based on a 17th-century work, 'Charity' by Van Dyck; also in the Collection. It was brought to England from Antwerp in 1763, but Reynolds was probably inspired by an engraving after it. For the older boy he used the cupid from Velázquez's 'Toilet of Venus', also in the Collection, basing himself on a drawing. Reynolds also had several sittings with the children, all of whom were under three.

Paintings decoded
Portraying 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'
3 mins 26 secs

Miranda Hinkley: So, here we are in Room 34 and this is Reynolds’s portrait of 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, she’s a rather hardworking lady because she married aged 20 and became the second wife of a chap who already had three daughters. So here she is, stepmother, new mother to three little boys – she subsequently goes on to produce even more children – so she’s got her heir and a spare and one left over as well. And she’s looking far from harassed by the three children that swarm around her…

Miranda Hinkley: She’s looking very sort of calm indeed, and in fact looking away from the viewer, out towards the corner of the canvas.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, in fact she almost looks as though she’s looking very contemplative and there is rather a stark contrast in her gaze compared to the gaze of the painting that inspired this. Reynolds was an artist who was very, very interested in the Old Masters – it’s not just Picasso who goes around challenging the past – and what he did was he went on an extended Grand Tour and he filled his sketch books with information and well as Italian Old Masters, he also saw Flemish Old Masters like Van Dyck. And we’ve got a painting in our collection which is 'Charity' – a personification of charity by Van Dyck, where the woman is absolutely surrounded by these three little chubby children. She looks up to heaven and to me she looks as if she’s saying ‘God ‘elp me’, but she really is saying ‘God help me’, and she’s a personification of the Christian virtue of charity. So of course as soon as you know that and as soon as you look at this painting you see not just a portrait of Lady Cockburn and three little children, you see her almost as a personification of charity.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, he’s basing his composition on a Van Dyck and the interesting thing there is of course that Van Dyck was an artist, originally a history painter, who became a portraitist when he arrived in Britain, who also had very great aspirations, and he wanted to be seen as an equal and did manage to gain quite significant status for an artist of his day. So perhaps Reynolds is choosing to hark back to Van Dyck for that reason. But of course at the same time this is a portrait of a society lady, isn’t it?

Jacqui Ansell: Reynolds strongly believed that you had to give a female sitter something of the modern for the sake of likeness and the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity. Now when this was on display at the Royal Academy – and it was actually greeted by a round of applause when it appeared – the erudite public would recognise this not just as Lady Cockburn, but they’d also see in it charity, this Christian virtue, but they’d also see in it something we don’t see today, and that is her as Cornelia. Cornelia was the Roman matron who was the mother of the Gracchi, these three fine soldiers, and when a companion of hers was showing off her jewellery, Cornelia allegedly brought forth her three sons and said ‘these are my jewels – my children are my jewels’. And this for me is one of the jewels of the collection if you like…

Miranda Hinkley: Well, they certainly look like lovely children in this painting at least. Jacqui, thank you very much.

Jacqui Ansell: Thank you.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell on Joshua Reynolds.

Key facts

Artist dates
1723 - 1792
Full title
Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons
Date made
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
141.5 x 113 cm
Inscription summary
Signed; Dated
Acquisition credit
Bequeathed by Alfred Beit, 1906
Inventory number
Location in Gallery