Mary Moser:   Grande Dame of the Royal Academy

Though she is barely remembered today, Mary Moser was one of the most renowned artists in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century. By the Regency, Mary Moser was the only surviving female founder of the Royal Academy. She was also a friend of Queen Charlotte, the royal princesses and many prominent members of society. Yet, she was also a woman with a rather scandalous past. Though Mary Moser’s most prolific years as a painter were behind her by the time the Prince of Wales became Regent, she was occasionally painting during the latter part of our favorite period and was still an active participant in the Royal Academy and the artistic community of London.

A brief sketch of the life of Mary Moser, near-sighted paintress . . .

Though Mary Moser was born in London, in October of 1744, her father, George Moser, was a Swiss immigrant. It is believed that he had come to Britain as a young man, in the 1720s. However, the first documented evidence of his presence in London is the record of his marriage to Mary Guynier, in 1729. George Moser had been trained in Geneva as a coppersmith and later as an artist, designer and engraver. After his arrival in London, he taught drawing, eventually becoming the drawing master to the royal family, including the young prince who became King George III. In London, George Moser also became known as a superior designer of gold and enamel boxes. It is generally believed that he trained his only child, his daughter, Mary, as an artist, and her natural skill flourished under his guidance.

Initially, Mary Moser focused on drawing, and, at the age of fourteen, in 1758, and again, in 1759, exhibited drawings at the Society of Arts. In both years, she won an award for her drawings. As was considered proper for young ladies at that time, Mary moved on to watercolor painting. As was also considered appropriate for women artists, she primarily worked as a flower paintress. Though many in the art world considered flower painting to be the lowest of all genres of painting, it was also a very lucrative pursuit. This was certainly the case in England, where flowers were much beloved and paintings of them were in high demand. By the early 1760s, not content with drawing and watercolor, Mary Moser took up painting with oils, though she still confined her work primarily to flower painting. Moser was quite near-sighted, so much so that it is said her nose was usually less than an inch from the canvas while she was working. Yet, that may have been more of an advantage than a disadvantage, since her floral paintings were hailed as technically meticulous as well as botanically accurate. She exhibited both oil and watercolor paintings at the Society of Arts from 1760 through 1768. During that time, she was much sought after across Britain as a talented flower painter.

Flower painting has its roots in ancient Greece. According to Pliny the Elder, this genre of painting began when the painter, Pausias, painted a floral garland in order to impress his sweetheart, Glycera. Regardless of its precise point of origin, flower painting took hold in the ancient world, though it was primarily restricted to serving as a component of ornate wall decoration. It then evolved to become an art affiliated with religious works, since flowers were considered to be among the most fragile and lovely of God’s gifts to mankind. At about the same time, the painting of plants and flowers became associated with the production of herbals, books which contained information and descriptions of medicinal plants. By the later sixteenth century, flower painting emerged as a sub-genre of still life. Even before the turn of the seventeenth century, there were painters who had begun to specialize in flower paintings all across Europe. This genre of painting was particularly popular in the Netherlands. The seventeenth century saw flower paintings become a luxury which were very popular with many art collectors and connoisseurs. This work had become so specialized that most flower painters had no time or interest in any other genre of painting and they had no need to, since their floral paintings commanded very high prices. Though the lust for detailed flower paintings had cooled a little by the mid-eighteenth century, flower paintings were still highly favored, particularly in England, a country of confirmed garden and flower lovers. And Mary Moser made it a point to paint mostly native English flowers, as naturalistically as possible. She seldom, if ever, painted the more exotic, imported blooms which were popular on the Continent, but were not generally in favor in Britain.

By 1768, at the age of twenty-four, Mary Moser was considered one of the leading flower painters in Britain. She had also begun to explore painting in other genres, such as landscapes and even that most noble of the painting genres, history painting. In December of that same year, King George III, at the urging of a delegation of artists which included his former teacher, George Moser, signed the Instrument of Foundation which established the Royal Academy of Arts. The mission of this academy was to raise the professional status of artists and to promote all aspects of the visual arts in Britain. Of the original forty founding members, two were women, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser. George Moser was also a founding member and he became the First Keeper of the Royal Academy, a position he would hold until his death, in 1783. With this position came a suite of rooms for the use of the Keeper and his family. The first set of rooms, in 1771, was in Old Somerset House, while a more modern suite became available in 1780, when the Royal Academy moved to its own wing in the New Somerset House, in the Strand. Mary Moser resided with her family in their rooms at Somerset House for a time, but by the early 1770s, she seems to have been supporting herself and had her own lodgings, in the Craven Buildings, located in Drury Lane.

After 1768, Mary Moser ceased to exhibit her work at the Society of Arts, as did most members of the Royal Academy. Beginning in 1769, she exhibited her paintings only at the art exhibitions sponsored by the Royal Academy. From 1769 through 1802, Moser had at least one painting in nearly every spring exhibition held by the Royal Academy. Because she was a woman, she was expected to refrain from any direct participation in the running of the Academy, beyond submitting her work for exhibition. Both she, and Angelica Kauffman, were prohibited from attending committee meetings and dinners, to which only male members of the Academy were admitted. Nevertheless, she took her position as a founding member seriously and maintained an active role in the proceedings of the organization, regularly attending the General Assemblies and voting in elections. This may have initially been due to her father’s close association with the Academy, since he was highly respected by all of its members and few of them would have wanted to hurt or insult him by objecting to his daughter’s involvement in Academy activities. However, Moser continued her active involvement with the Academy’s operations long after her father’s death, in 1783.

In the 1770s, Moser’s work took a more serious and noble turn. Though she continued with her flower painting, and occasionally painted a few portraits, she also began to paint landscapes and even some history paintings. A few of these she believed to be good enough to enter for consideration for inclusion in the Royal Academy spring exhibitions. And, despite the fact she was a woman, quite a number of them were accepted. From at least 1770, Mary Moser was considered to be one of the best female painters in Britain. She was regularly getting commissions and was able to support herself primarily through her art. Yet, we know she was not completely focused on her painting career. She was a bright, active and vivacious young woman and she was not immune to the powerful attraction of a handsome young artist from the Continent.

It is possible that a Swiss-born artist who settled in London, Henry Fuseli, had some influence on Mary Moser’s decision to turn her talents to more powerful subject matter. Fuseli was a highly educated man, as well as a talented painter and draughtsman, who had come to England, in 1765. Initially, he supported himself as a writer, until he became acquainted with Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was the President of the Royal Academy. Upon seeing a portfolio of Fuseli’s drawings, Reynolds advised the young man to concentrate on his art, rather than his writing, and Fuseli took his advice. It is likely that Sir Joshua invited young Fuseli to meetings and other events at the Royal Academy. It was probably there that the Swiss artist made the acquaintance of the majority of the members of the Academy, including Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser.

Though he was not a tall man, according to contemporaries, Fuseli had " . . . a fine, manly countenance," was an intelligent and witty conversationalist, and made " . . . a deep impression on most female hearts and minds." One of those hearts and minds belonged to Mary Moser, who was thoroughly smitten by this intelligent and talented Continental artist. Though Fuseli was quite susceptible to feminine charms and the idea of passionate love himself, he was less interested in Moser than he was in the slightly older, but more glamourous and aloof Angelica Kauffman. However, Kauffman rebuffed all of Fuseli’s advances. That may be why he became involved in a romantic fling with Mary Moser, probably around 1769. Moser made it a point to spend as much time with Fuseli as she could and there is no indication he did much to dissuade her. The depth of their relationship is unknown, but it is clear that Fuseli was not as attached to her as she was to him. In 1770, when Sir Joshua Reynolds urged Fuseli to travel to Italy in order to further his study of art, the young man eagerly took his mentor’s advice and departed England soon thereafter. Not only did he leave Mary Moser behind with little thought, he remained in Italy for nearly a decade, until 1779. Though it was not considered proper at that time for a single young woman to write to a single man who was not a member of her family, Mary Moser did write at least a few letters to Fuseli during the first couple of years he spent in Italy. Though he was a lackadaisical correspondent, he did eventually respond to her letters, though with much less fervor than can be found in her letters to him.

No evidence survives to suggest that Mary Moser took a romantic interest in any other man for many years after her affair with Henry Fuseli came to an end. She continued to paint, exhibit her work and participate in the operations of the Royal Academy for the next twenty years. She had expanded and broadened her painting to include a wide array of history subjects, though she never fully abandoned flower painting. During those years, her ability to paint flowers so naturally and accurately brought her to the attention of Queen Charlotte, herself an avid botanist and an amateur artist. Mary Moser was employed to teach the Queen and her daughters how to draw and paint, particularly plants and flowers. The two women became friends and, in the 1790s, Queen Charlotte commissioned Mary Moser to complete what would be the most complex and prestigious project of her career.

In 1792, King George III purchased the Frogmore Estate in Berkshire as a private country retreat for his wife, Queen Charlotte. Conveniently, the Frogmore Estate adjoined the grounds of Windsor Castle, and the Queen and her unmarried daughters used Frogmore House as refuge from the demands of court life. There, they could be private and they were able to enjoy their favorite pastimes of reading, needlework, painting, drawing and "botanizing," that is, the collection and study of plants. Soon after the Queen was given possession of Frogmore House, she commissioned James Wyatt to remodel and extend the size of the house. At about the same time, Queen Charlotte commissioned Mary Moser to develop and oversee a comprehensive decorative scheme with a floral theme for one of the new rooms which would be added to the house. That room, located in the South Pavilion, was to be decorated throughout with images of flowers so that it resembled a elegant, open-air garden arbor. In order to accomplish this objective, the decor for this room comprised a combination of oil paintings on canvas with murals which were painted directly on the walls and ceiling of the chamber. Many of the flowers in the Queen’s own botanical collection were used as models for the paintings in the room in the South Pavilion. Mary Moser was paid £900 for her work at Frogmore House, which was probably completed some time in 1793. [Author’s Note:   Frogmore House is still in the possession of the British Royal family and Mary Moser’s floral room is still in existence. It is part of the house which is open to the public during guided tours.]

The lavishly decorated floral chamber in Frogmore House was the last large professional commission ever executed by Mary Moser. On 26 October 1793, soon after it was completed, she married, at the age of forty-nine, and retired as a professional painter. It seems unlikely that Moser’s marriage was a love match. Her husband was Captain Hugh Lloyd, of Seymour Place, in Little Chelsea. This was the second marriage for Captain Lloyd. His first wife had been a close Moser family friend for many years, and had been very dear to Mary. It may have been a companionate marriage or a marriage of convenience for both partners. Though Mrs. Lloyd was no longer taking paying art commissions, she did continue to paint as an amateur. Under her married name, she regularly showed her work at the Royal Academy exhibitions through 1802, when health issues forced her to restrict her painting activities.

It is not clear if Mary ever got over her unrequited romantic attachment for Henry Fuseli, but it is known that she always held his work in very high regard and always spoke well of him. He had returned to England from Italy in 1779, but he never renewed his affair with Mary Moser, though, eventually, he also became an associate and then a full member of the Royal Academy. In 1788, he married one of his models, a kind and dutiful woman who was not particularly bright. She seems to have been just the kind of wife that suited him. It is unlikely that Fuseli would ever have considered marrying Mary Moser, since she was a very intelligent woman. Fuseli is recorded as having said, "I hate clever women. They are only troublesome." Though she did not know it, it may be just as well that clever and talented Mary was spared marriage to such a man, a relationship in which she could only have found herself considered "troublesome" by her husband.

One hint that we have which suggests that Mary’s marriage was not a love match, and that she might have finally gotten over Henry Fuseli, came not long after her marriage. Mary departed London, without her husband, for a six-month sketching tour of England with the flamboyant miniature artist, Richard Cosway. At the time, Cosway, a fellow member of the Royal Academy, had recently separated from his wife, Maria, who was twenty years his junior. He was a talented and successful artist, but he was also a well-known philander and libertine who had had affairs with a great many women over the years. Though Mary Lloyd was fifty years of age when she began her sketching tour with Richard Cosway, that does not seem to have been any deterrent to his sexual interest in her. Both of them kept sketch books, and in his, Cosway made a series of salacious notes about their sexual activities, and his admiration for Mary’s adventurous nature, her skill and her responsiveness. Though Mary’s affair with Cosway was an open secret in London, Maria Cosway ignored it, as she had her husband’s many other peccadilloes. Either Captain Lloyd was not aware of it, or he was also willing to ignore it, since, upon her return, he and Mary lived together for the rest of his life. The affair also does not seem to have negatively impacted Mary’s standing in the artistic community and she continued to regularly socialize with her many friends.

In the early 1780s, Angelica Kauffman retired to Italy, never to return to England. This left Mary Moser as the only female founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts still resident in Britain. In 1803, the Royal Academy held its annual election for the organization’s president. The current president was the painter, Benjamin West, who had held the position since 1792. Most members cast their vote for West, with one exception. Henry Fuseli cast his vote for Mrs. Mary Lloyd. When fellow members demanded his reason for this unexpected choice, he replied, "Well, suppose I did; she is eligible to the office, and is not one old woman as good as another?" Clearly, it was his intent to insult Benjamin West, and he did so at the expense of his erstwhile lover. Though Mrs. Lloyd did not win the presidency of the Royal Academy, the thought that she might have done so seems to have seriously unsettled the male members of the organization. Though there was never any explicit ban, not a single female artist would be elected to the Academy for over a century after the passing of Angelica Kauffman (died 1807) and Mary Moser Lloyd (died 1819). The next female member of the Royal Academy of Arts was Annie Louisa Swynnertion, who was not elected until 1922.

Around 1802, Mary Lloyd’s eyesight began to further deteriorate, to the point that she could not paint as regularly as she had done in previous years. That was the last year she would enter a painting for display in the Royal Academy art exhibition at Somerset House in the Strand. However, she did continue to paint, for her own pleasure and that of her friends and family. She also continued to attend the meetings, exhibitions and many other events at the Royal Academy. In 1810, at the age of sixty-six, Mary suffered a stroke which left her partially paralyzed on her right side. Unwilling to give up her painting, Mary worked very hard to regain the use of her right arm and hand. By 1814, at the age of seventy, Mary was painting again, though with some difficulty. She would continue to paint, whenever she could, for the rest of her life.

Though the date is not certain, a year or two before the Regency began, Captain Hugh Lloyd passed away. This left his widow, Mary Lloyd, alone in their home, since the couple had had no children. It may have been at this time that Mary Lloyd moved to No. 22 Upper Thornhaugh Street, just off Russell Square, in Bloomsbury. It was there that she would live out the rest of her days. Though she did not have any children, Mary did have some family, including her cousins, Joseph Moser and Elizabeth Graham, as well as many friends, so it is unlikely that she lived a solitary life during her widowhood. When she died, on Sunday, 2 May 1819, Mary Moser Lloyd was seventy-four years old. She was laid to rest in Kensington, next to Captain Lloyd. In her will, she appointed her cousin, Joseph Moser, one of her executors, along with the sculptor, Joseph Nollekens. She left bequests to her cousin Joseph and his wife, to her cousin Elizabeth and to several of her friends and fellow artists, most of them women. Some scholars have suggested that these bequests show that Mary was particularly sympathetic to the many challenges faced by female artists, having been one herself.

Dear Regency Authors, although Mary Moser Lloyd was no longer practicing as a professional paintress when our favorite decade began, she was still a noted figure on the London art scene. Might she find a part in a romance set during the Regency as a historical figure? Or, might the story of her life provide inspiration for a fictional character in such a tale? Perhaps the heroine is introduced to Mrs. Lloyd, who takes the young woman under her wing and teaches her to draw and paint so that she is able to make her living. Could it be that some ignorant, pretentious character ridicules the old, bent lady with the thick spectacles who is viewing the art at a Royal Academy exhibition? Will the hero set them straight, explaining that that lady is the talented Mrs. Mary Lloyd, who was a famous painter and the only surviving female member of the Royal Academy, thus earning him the respect and admiration of the heroine, who is nearby? Then again, mayhap the heroine of a Regency romance is a professional flower painter who has been commissioned to paint a room similar to that which Mary Moser had painted for Queen Charlotte at Frogmore House. Will this young paintress encounter the hero while she is engaged in that work at a grand country house? How else might Mary Moser Lloyd, or the story of her life, help to paint a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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