Cousins the artist

Samuel Cousins by Charles Albert Waltner, published by Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd, after Francis Holl, 1879, etching, published 1881, NPG D34171, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Born on May 9, 1801, in Victoria Terrace, Exeter, into the family of a tailor, Samuel Cousins was educated at the Exeter Episcopal School. He displayed his talent for drawing, particularly for making portraits and copies of engravings, in his early school days. The artist himself could not remember not drawing, but he distinctly recalled making drawings at the age of seven.[1]  In 1812, when he was eleven years old, his drawings (offered for sale at a local shop) caught the eye of Captain T. M. Bagnold, who recommended them to the Society of Arts in London. For his drawings, Cousins received a Silver Palette Award (1812) and a Silver Isis Medal (1813), and impressed one of the main engravers in England at the time, S. W. Reynolds, who took Cousins as his apprentice in 1814 without the usual payment by the trainee. The patronage of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland allowed young Cousins to be sent to the capital, where his artistic career began. Cousins worked for Reynolds for four years after completing his apprenticeship. By 1826 the young engraver was working independently and had produced his first two prints.[2]

Cousins’s successful career was closely connected to the popular artists of his time, whose paintings he reproduced in his prints. Especially well known were his prints after two presidents of the Royal Academy: Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence. In November 1835, less than a decade after establishing himself as an independent artist, Cousins was elected Associate Engraver of the Royal Academy. Also in the 1830s, Cousins began making prints after pictures of animals by Edwin Henry Landseer, which proved to be very popular subjects for reproduction and remained in demand for thirty years. In 1838, Cousins made prints after the Chalon portrait of Queen Victoria, which was created by Alfred Edward Chalon and marked Victoria’s first public appearance as queen.[3]

The 1850s marked a turning point in Cousins’s career. In 1854, he was commissioned to engrave Winterhalter’s portrait of Napoleon III. Cousins’s reluctance to undertake the commission forced the sovereign to make a special request of him; the artist finally relented, making engravings after the portraits of both the emperor and empress. For his work, Cousins was awarded the Legion of Honor — the highest French order for military and civil merits — and a gold medal as a Graveur Étranger (Foreign Engraver). Also in 1854, Cousins began making reproductions after works by John Everett Millais: the first was The Order of Release, and Cousins would produce eleven more. The following year, 1855, Cousins was advanced to the rank of Royal Academician, one of only two engravers to have been so honored.[4] 

One of the great examples of Cousins’s work from this period is his reproduction of Landseer’s Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Titania and Bottom (1848-51; engraving, 1857).[5] When compared to the painting, the engraving astonishes by its meticulous detail. For instance, the foliage and branches in the upper left, which are merely indicated by Landseer, become clear and distinguished in Cousins’s engraving. Such changes were in many ways necessitated by the technique: whereas the painter had the luxury of using color to create a general impression of tree branches, the engraver had to add detail or settle for a shapeless dark space. Cousins’s immense talent lay in adding detail without changing the essence of the painting. The subtlety in the rendering of texture is another remarkable achievement of the engraving, which is especially notable when looking at the heads of Titania and Bottom. Another marvelous quality of the engraving is the rendering of light and luminescence without the benefit of color, particularly astonishing in the depiction of the fairy and moonlight at the entrance of the cave. This work makes evident Cousins’s artistic skill and talent.

The 1870 exhibition of the Old Masters at Burlington House revived the public’s interest in the art of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Cousins, who was planning to retire in 1874, began producing prints after the great British master. Cousins is said to have created “con amore” a print of Reynolds’s Strawberry Girl, which became so popular that it brought renewed interest to Cousins’s own early work.[6] The success of Strawberry Girl stimulated the seventy-year-old artist to produce thirty-seven more plates in a relatively short time. Several of these prints would later be exhibited at the Royal Academy. In 1877, Thomas Agnew & Son held an exhibition of Cousins’s works. Three years later, Cousins retired from the Royal Academy.[7]

When J. P. Mayall took Cousins’s photograph in 1884, he captured the artist in the last years of his life, at a moment when, after an extraordinary career, he could rest on his well-deserved laurels.[8] Interestingly, the last engraving Cousins made was after his own portrait by Edwin Long.[9] Unsatisfied with his work, Cousins resorted to photography to correct the imperfections he discerned in the engraving.[10]

Mayall and Long’s portraits of Cousins are by no means the only likenesses of the artist that have come down to us.[11] When Cousins was in his forties, James Leakey painted a portrait of him, following the precepts of traditional portraiture in the subject’s idealized features and the column and drapery in the background. Mayall’s photograph of Cousins recalls this early portrait: in both, the engraver is seated in an armchair, almost facing the viewer, yet looking into the distance. In contrast is the 1860s carte-de-visite by Ferdinand Jean de la Ferté Joubert, which portrays a commanding man with a stern expression. One of the most famous later portraits of Cousins was the one created in 1879 by Frank Holl, which predates Mayall’s by five years and shows the engraver seated in an armchair, probably in his own house, again looking past the viewer; next to him is the engraving after Reynolds’s Strawberry Girl. This portrait, which Holl was initially reluctant to undertake, was exhibited at the Royal Academy and brought the young artist great success.[12]

Over his long life, Cousins had built himself a considerable fortune, and donated a substantial sum to the Royal Academy.[13] His generosity extended to his prized work, which he bestowed on various museums in his late years. Samuel Cousins died on May 7, 1887, at 24 Camden Square, London — the house where he had lived, unmarried and childless, with his sister Susan, since 1857. He was buried in Highgate cemetery. [14]

Ekaterina Koposova


Samuel Cousins, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare, Act 4, Scene 1), 1857, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City,


Edwin Landseer, Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Titania and Bottom, 1848-1851, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and Google Arts Institute,

[1] Alfred Whitman, Samuel Cousins (London: George Bell & Sons, 1904), 3.

[2] Ibid., 3-8; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Cousins, Samuel,” by L. A. Fagan, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, last modified 2004.

[3] Whitman, Samuel Cousins, 19-21.

[4] Fagan, “Cousins”; Whitman, Cousins, 21-22.

[5] Links to Scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream: Landseer & Cousins

[6] Whitman, Cousins, 24.

[7] Ibid., 23-24, 26.

[8] “The Engravings of Mr. Samuel Cousins,” The Academy (December 1883), 402-3.

[9] Whitman, Cousins, 26.

[10] Ibid., 26.

[11] National Portrait Gallery, s.v. “Samuel Cousins,” accessed November 3, 2016.

[12] A. M. Reynolds, The Life and Work of Frank Holl (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1912), 155-59.

[13] “Samuel Cousins, Hon. Retired R.A.,” The Athenaeum (May 14, 1887), 648.

[14] Fagan, “Cousins.”


Samuel Cousins, Samuel Cousins, 1884, engraving after Edwin Longsden Long, Samuel Cousins, 1884


In his obituary notice of Cousins, published in The Athenaeum on May 14, 1887 (no. 3107, pp. 647–48), Stephens elaborates on his statement in Artists at Home that Cousins had made an "unostentatious gift of £15,000 to the Royal Academy in trust for the benefit of deserving and poor artists": "Living considerably within his income," Stephens writes, "Cousins during his long life contrived to accumulate a great deal more money than his moderate wants required. One day, about ten years since, he appeared at the Royal Academy with 15, his pocket, and immediately made arrangements for placing the sum in trust for the benefit of deserving and poor artists, seven of whom now receive 800l. a year apiece owing to his generosity." Stephens concludes with a sentence that may betray his own qualified admiration for the artist: "Personally Cousins was a man of very strongly marked character and decided manner."


From George Dunlop Leslie, R.A., The Inner Life of The Royal Academy: With an Acocunt of its Schools and Exhibitions Principally in the Reign of Queen Victoria (London, 1914; New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971), 204–6:

Samuel Cousins, the last great master of mezzotint engraving, was a constant attendant on the varnishing days [at the Royal Academy] until his death in 1887. He was picturesquely conspicuous in appearance, reserved and dignified in manner, laconic and dry in utterance, and greatly respected by all. Whatever he said was to the point and accurate. He was a very old friend of my father's [C. R. Leslie], and I loved to engage him in conversation, especially on the subject of his own beautiful branch of art. He asserted, and I believe with absolute truth, that he could produce plates equal in every respect to those of the earlier masters of mezzotint if he were allowed to make use of copper, both for the execution and printing, but that no pubisher would dream of giving him a commission for such a plate, as it would be impossible to produce a sufficient number of proofs from it to secure the desired profit. He told me that he could himself detect deterioration in the proofs from a copper plate after the seventh impression. . . . Cousins was a great artist, and drew beautifully even when quite young. I have seen a series of portraits of his relatives and friends, drawn in pencil by him when a mere youth, that will bear comparison for their accuracy and delicacy with the drawings of Holbein."