Stephens on Cousins
F. G. Stephens begins his biography of Samuel Cousins with a prolonged discussion of the artist’s not being the “veritable Doyen” of the English engravers while acclaiming him as the oldest member of the Royal Academy. Then follows the more traditional narrative of Cousins’s life and work. Stephens tells Cousins’s child-prodigy story — his immense proclivity, since a young age, for drawing, especially portraits and copies of engravings. Stephens mentions Thomas Dyke Acland, the man whose early patronage helped Cousins pursue his career as an engraver by making it possible for him to move to London. Stephens does not mention another man who played an important role in the beginning of Cousins’s journey as an artist — Captain T. M. Bagnold, who, according to Alfred Whitman, an early biographer of the engraver, was so impressed by Cousins’s drawings, which he made at the age of eleven, that he recommended them to the attention of the London Society of Arts, effectively launching Cousins’s career.
Stephens proceeds to describe Cousins’s apprenticeship with S. W. Reynolds, including an anecdote about their joint visit to the Ashburnham House in Sussex, where Cousins produced remarkably good “likenesses” of the family of the Earl of Ashburnham. Stephens continues by describing Cousins’s establishing himself as an independent artist before providing an impressive list of Cousins’s finest works—a list that, Stephens claims, he received from the artist himself. Stephens describes Cousins’s decision to retire and his somewhat sudden return to his profession, which resulted in the production of several “masterpieces,” including the reproduction of John Everett Millais’s Yes, which can be seen in J. P. Mayall’s photographic portrait. Strangely, Stephens neglects to mention this fact in his identification of the artworks in the photogravure. Another important work that Stephens fails to identify is the engraving by Jacobus Harrewijn after Jacques van Croes’s drawing of Peter Paul Rubens’s house — a strange omission, considering the engraving’s prominence in the composition.
From Stephens’s account, it seems that he did not know Cousins personally, at least not well. He claims to have communicated with him, probably by means of correspondence, which is how he obtained the list of works that Cousins considered his best. Stephens also cites biographical sketches of Cousins by Messrs. C. Pycroft and T. H. Ward, the engraver’s earliest biographers, meaning that he certainly did not know Cousins’s life story well enough to produce a biographical sketch without relying on the works of those who did.
In Artists at Home, Stephens maintains that Samuel Cousins was not the doyen of English engravers because he was sixteen months younger than George Thomas Doo, RA (January 6, 1800–November 13, 1886), the rightful owner of that distinction. But in his obituary notice of "the famous engraver who died on Saturday last," published in The Athenaeum on May 14, 1887, Stephens expands upon and amends that assertion, stating that Cousins "was not the doyen of English engravers until the recent deaths of Mr. Doo (his senior by sixteen months) and Mr. [Thomas] Webster," who had died in 1886. The article (published anonymously) opens with the statement that the memoir of Cousins in Artists at Home "was sanctioned and revised by him. The facts it gives are, therefore, unquestionably correct." [F. G. Stephens], "Samuel Cousins, Hon. Retired R.A.," The Athenaeum, no. 3107, May 14, 1887, pp. 646–48.