Exeter Royal Albert Memorial Museum saves memento of scandalous 18th century Viscount

By Culture24 Staff | 23 April 2010
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A photo of a miniature portrait of an earl in regal costume being held by a pair of gloves

(Above) The miniature of 18th century Earl William Courtenay

An 18th century Earl notorious for lavish, loud parties and a homosexual relationship with a novelist which caused a nationwide scandal will be immortalised in miniature fashion at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

William Courtenay is pictured in Van Dyck costume – named after the famous 17th century painter – in the tiny portrait by Regency England miniaturist of choice Richard Cosway, who was equally well-known for a string of musical parties at his luxurious home in Pall Mall.

The 3rd Viscount Courtenay inherited Exeter's imposing Powderham Castle after the death of his father, holding a "respectable period of mourning" before hiring a giant marquee to celebrate.

A photo of a man in a shirt holding a circular miniature of an earl while wearing white gloves

Royal Albert Memorial Museum Curator of Art John Madin with the miniature

He went on to enjoy a romance with writer, collector and politician William Beckford, who was subsequently forced to flee the country on a charge of misconduct, having described William as the "only person to whom I can communicate my feelings – or to whom I can disclose the strange wayward passion which throbs this very instant in my bosom."

Painted in watercolour on ivory in 1793, the portrait of Courtenay includes an unidentified, sealed lock of hair which may have belonged to the exhibitionist, known as Kitty to his friends and family.

He escaped creditors to a life in America in 1811, and spent the final years of his life in Paris, leaving the estate on the verge of bankruptcy. The Music Room where he would throw extravagant soirees is still used for concerts to this day.

The Museum bought the piece for less than £10,000 in a purchase supported by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, the Victoria and Albert Purchase Grant Fund, the Art Fund and the Friends of Exeter Museums and Arts Gallery.

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