Behind The Scenes, 16 May 2018: Cottonian watercolour reveals a surprise
by Susan Leedham, Cottonian Project Assistant
Recently, as part of a digitisation project we’re undertaking, we’ve been preparing our historically significant Cottonian Collection. This has allowed us to spend more time getting up close to the incredible artworks contained in the collection, and uncovering some of their secrets.
This vivid watercolour shows the ancient poet Dante being attacked by three animals whilst ascending to heaven.
The panther, lion and wolf represent the three passions of human nature – love, ambition and avarice. The painting is a reference to the first section, or canto, of Dante’s long narrative poem, Inferno. The Inferno is the first part of Dante’s epic 14th-century poem, The Divine Comedy. It tells the story of Dante’s journey through the nine stages of hell guided by the ancient Roman poet, Virgil.
When we turned the painting over we discovered a wonderful surprise!
On the reverse of the canvas there’s an inscription. It’s written in the handwriting of Charles Rogers, the gentleman who brought the Cottonian Collection together in the 18th century.
Rogers writes: “This very elegant drawing was, the 26. Dec. 1782, a present of the ingenious and sublime Lady Mrs Maria Cosway to CR”.
Maria Cosway was an artist in the late-eighteenth century who exhibited at London’s Royal Academy. She commissioned the first portrait of Napoleon to be seen in England.
Given the date, it’s likely she gave Rogers this watercolour as a Christmas present following the publication of Rogers’ translation of Dante’s Inferno. Rogers was fluent in Italian and in 1782 he became the first person to translate the entirety of the Inferno into English.
Excitingly, this inscription not only gives a provenance to the painting, but allows us to add another name to Rogers’ circle of friends.
He was, by all accounts, an amiable gentleman with a large circle of prestigious and talented friends, many of whom he met through the formation of the outstanding Cottonian Collection.