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Emma Aloysia Novello’s Portrait of Richard Cobden

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A focused study of the 1861 portrait of the politician Richard Cobden by the artist Emma Aloysia Novello, supported by an Understanding British Portraits Fellowship in 2024.
Richard Cobden
Emma Aloysia Novello painted an oil sketch of the politician Richard Cobden in Paris during May 1861, following his negotiation of what would become known as the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty. It was presented to the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds in 1953.
BC MS NCC/20/297 Emma Novello to (Joseph) Alfred Novello 17 August 1870 1
Emma Novello's correspondence with her brother, (Joseph) Alfred Novello, reveals the existence of a second untraced portrait of Richard Cobden painted from memory, exhibited in 1868 and 1869; although praised by strangers, her attempts to sell it to Alfred for £25 were rejected due to his dissatisfaction with the likeness, possession of other portraits of Cobden and concerns about Emma's intended use of the money for travel to Paris and Rome.
BC MS NCC/9/1/64 Sketch of Clara Novello by Edward Petre Novello
Richard Cobden's connections with the Novello family contributed to the repeal of 'Taxes on Knowledge' following Cobden's successful negotiation of the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty, a free trade agreement between England and France that improved European relations.
BC MS NCC/10/4/1 untitled oil sketch [portrait of Emma Aloysia Novello by Henry Sass]
Emma Aloysia Novello studied at an Augustinian convent school in Belgium before beginning her art education at John Henry Sass's drawing academy in London. She was prevented from continuing her training at the Royal Academy Schools because they did not yet admit women as students.
BC MS NCC/10/7/16 untitled watercolour [houses against mountains]
Emma Novello's artistic practice was most visible in public between 1859 and 1869, through participation in temporary exhibitions and involvement in advocating for women's admission to the Royal Academy Schools.
BC MS NCC/10/3/1 Copy of Notice of Admission 1
Emma Novello was diagnosed with 'melancholic mania' due to caring responsibilities for an elderly aunt and was institutionalised by her older brother (Joseph) Alfred Novello, spending two decades at Otto House Lunatic Asylum until her death in 1902.
ART 094 Portrait of Emma Novello
Emma Novello's pursuit of an artistic career, supported by her family's cultural connections and financial stability, challenged social norms and gender restrictions of her time, despite the institutional barriers and economic dependencies she faced as a woman artist in mid-nineteenth-century Britain.
A bibliography related to research on the artist Emma Novello, the politician Richard Cobden and the social, political, economic and cultural conditions in which they lived and worked.

This Research Spotlight focuses on the portrait of the politician Richard Cobden by the artist Emma Aloysia Novello. Painted in Paris in 1861, the portrait materialises the alliance between Cobden and the Novello family that contributed to the Paper Duty Repeal Bill; part of the ultimately successful campaign against ‘Taxes on Knowledge’. Her brother (Joseph) Alfred Novello’s role in the Society for the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge is represented in the existing literature but Emma’s involvement has not been examined, despite her also having met and corresponded with Cobden. Her reputation has also been obscured by the artistic potential and early death of her brother Edward Petre Novello and her status as an unmarried woman. 

The purpose of this research is to recover Emma Novello’s agency as an artist and make visible her significance to histories of British portraiture and politics. By engaging in a close study of her portrait of Cobden in the context of the wider Novello Cowden Clarke Collection, we can attend to the relevance of her artistic and political legacy and understand her contribution to nineteenth-century culture.

This project was supported by an Understanding British Portraits Fellowship in 2024. 

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