A pretty story is told of a Roman matron named Cornelia, who was one day entertaining a visitor, when the conversation led to the subject of jewels. "These are my jewels," said the hostess, and turned to show the stranger her beautiful children. The story comes readily to mind as one looks at this portrait of Lady Cockburn and her Children. Indeed, the picture was once engraved[7] under the fanciful title of "Cornelia and her Children." Like the Roman matron of old, the English mother gathers her children about her as the choicest jewels of her possession. Her stately beauty is of the classic sort, and the children are as charming as English children are reputed to be.

[7] By Tomkins, in 1792.

All three are boys. The eldest is James, who kneels on his mother's lap, playfully grasping the mantle about her neck, and supported in his precarious position by her hand placed firmly on his back. He has the sweet expression which betokens a sunny nature, and his well-cut features are such as make a handsome man. He was his father's heir and namesake, succeeding him as the seventh baronet.

The rogue peeping over his mother's shoulder is George. Though his features are less regular than his elder brother's, he is none the less attractive, for he is a jolly little fellow. When he grew to manhood he entered the navy and became an admiral. It was on his ship, the Northumberland, that Napoleon was conveyed to the island of St. Helena to end his days in exile. In the course of time Admiral Cockburn became the eighth baronet of the name.

The baby lying on the mother's lap is William. In after years he entered the ministry, married a daughter of Sir Robert Peel, and became Dean of York. It was fitting that one of Lady Cockburn's sons should enter the Church, as her father, Dr. Ayscough, had been Dean of Bristol. Upon the death of his elder brother, the Dean of York became the ninth baronet.

The picture shows the three children in a game of hide-and-seek. George, who is evidently the leader of the fun, dodges up and down behind his mother, throwing little William into an ecstasy of delight. As the round face appears again over the shoulder, the baby reaches up his fat little hand to clutch his brother's arm, fairly doubling himself up in his pleasure, and grasping one foot in his other hand.

James enjoys the play more quietly. It is quite likely that he has been hiding his face in his mother's mantle, but now he pauses to watch his little brother's amusement, his lips parted in a smile, his finger directing the baby where to look.


The mother turns her face towards that of her eldest son, scanning it closely.

The action in the picture is so delightfully natural that we do not at first realize how difficult a problem is solved in the arrangement of the four figures. An amateur photographer places his sitters in a stiff row and directs them all to look towards a single point. The master artist conceives of some action which shall engage the attention of all, and form a natural connection between them. Thus, in our picture, the interest of the game binds the figures together. The baby lifts his face to that of the mother and brother; the mother turns to the child at her right, and the latter looks down at the baby, thus completing the circle.

The lines of the composition are also so disposed as to bring the figures together in a close unity. Follow the outer edge of the figure of James at the left; trace across the mother's lap the line made by the border of her mantle, and continued along the baby's body. From the mother's elbow move the pencil past the baby's head and along his out-stretched arm till the line ends at the top of George's head, and from this point carry a somewhat irregular line across to the head of James. We have thus traced the parallelogram which incloses the group.

The centre of the group is somewhat at the left of the centre of the canvas, and the picture would seem one-sided were it not for the details of the background at the right. Here the painter has represented a parapet supporting a marble pillar, at the base of which a large macaw perches. Beyond is seen a beautiful landscape. This spot of color brings the composition into perfect balance. More than this, the view thus opened relieves the crowded effect of the compact grouping. The surrounding space would not seem large enough for the four figures were it not for this added depth of space, which gives the eye a long distance to traverse.

The composition is as fine in color as it is in lines and masses. It is a "splendid tawny color harmony, formed by the red of the curtain, the warm flesh tints, the rich orange yellow of the outer robe of satin bordered with white fur, and the gaudy plumage of the macaw".[8]

[8] Claude Phillips.

With so many great artistic qualities, it is no wonder that the portrait has always been admired. Upon its completion in 1774 it was sent to the Royal Academy to be exhibited, and when it was first brought into the room, all the painters present, struck with admiration, burst into a tumult of applause and handclapping. Even after this the painstaking painter probably added some finishing touches and inscribed his name and the date, 1775, upon the ornamental border of the lady's mantle.