Francis Cotes (English, 1726-1770), Portrait of Miss Frances Lee, 1769.
Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William D. Vogel M1964.5. Photo by Larry Sanders.
This beautiful portrait of Frances Lee was painted for her parents by the English artist Francis Cotes in 1769 and today hangs in the Milwaukee Art Museum. If she looks rather solemn perhaps it is because she had been sent away from her family to school in England and neither she nor they could know whether they would ever meet again.
Frances Lee was born in Spanish Town Jamaica on the 31st October 1758, the eldest child of Robert Cooper Lee and Priscilla Kelly, and was baptised in the St Catherine’s parish church Spanish Town on the 23rd of January 1759. The parish register entry for Frances reads:
“Frances Lee a Quadroon” and on the line below, John Venn the vicar who transcribed the registers wrote “I believe a white illegit. child “. Technically since Priscilla Kelly was a free quadroon, Frances was in fact an octoroon.
In late 1767 or early 1768, at the age of nine, Frances (known in the family as Fanny) was sent to school in England. It is not clear whether there were specific fears for her health, although she suffered health problems throughout her life and early mention is made in the family letters of a six month period away from her school in Streatham.
Then in May 1768 her uncle Joseph Lee made a trip from Jamaica to England, leaving in haste because of fears for his health. While in England he visited his niece at Mrs Endleigh’s school in Streatham. It is likely the school was recommended by the Fuller family who had a house there. At first Fanny did not recognise her uncle, perhaps because she had not seen him for so long or perhaps simply because she did not expect to see him in England. Joseph however was able to report that she was ‘admirably improved’ and ‘in extreme good health’.
I have been at the school where every thing is in the utmost Order and Regularity…Mr Fuller and myself have been all over the School and seen the Beds and other accommodations which are all with the greatest neatness and elegance.
It was important for the family to verify that Frances was being well cared for since even expensive girls’ schools could be chill and unpleasant places. In an account of Camden House where his daughter was until her death in 1797, Arthur Young recalled that ‘The rules for health are detestable, no air but in measured formal walk, and all running and quick motion prohibited, preposterous! She slept with a girl who could only hear with one ear, and so ever laid on the one side, and my dear child could do no otherwise afterwards without pain, because the vile beds are so small they must both lie the same way…..She never had a bellyful at breakfast. Detestable this at the expense of £80 a year’. Why he allowed his poor daughter to continue there is a mystery to me.
On his first visit to the school Joseph stayed an extra day in order to see his ‘pretty niece’ dance. While in England he spent some time on business trips, on sightseeing and on family visits out of town, but he saw Fanny in London when she was staying with friends and he reported in a letter to his brother having seen her again and said that he considered her to be ‘the Flower of the School’. Fanny had become a firm favourite with her Uncle Joe, and there were plans for a family celebration during the Christmas holidays with her Aunt Charlotte Morley, and her three Morley cousins. Joseph confessed to Robert that he had taken the liberty of presenting Frances with a new silk dress for the winter – possibly even the one in the painting.
The portrait must already have been commissioned by the autumn of 1768 because Joseph promised his brother that he would see it finished during the Christmas holidays. In March 1769 Joseph wrote to his brother
I have had her Picture drawn by Cotes who is in great repute here and is considered as next to Reynolds in the Art and when it is completed it shall be sent to you by the first safe Opportunity – the Price will be a few Guineas beyond the sum you mentioned which I apprehend will not be disagreeable to you as it will always remain a handsome Picture even after she has outgrown the likeness.
There was a delay sending the picture ‘a very strong likeness of her’, so that it could be put into a ‘neat Italian fluted frame’ and it was not until October that year that it was finally despatched to her parents in Jamaica . The cost was thirty Guineas ‘the usual sum for a picture of that size’, and the frame cost an additional six pounds eight shillings. You can see the shipping order that included the portrait here.
At school in Streatham, Frances received a letter written by her father in April and carried by Mr Moulton, a friend who presented her with a guinea from her mother. A Christmas letter from Frances had reached her parents together with a purse and ‘swordknot’ (an ornamental tassel attached to the pommel of a sword) that she had made for her father. The main news to reach her was that her young brother Robert was to sail for England. Joseph Lee remained in England long enough to meet his six year old nephew, who was sent to Harrow School in the autumn of 1769, and finally returned to Jamaica in 1770 where he died in 1772 at the age of thirty-six.
In 1771 Robert Cooper Lee brought his family back to England and like many who had made their fortune in Jamaica he never returned there. The portrait of course came with them. Frances, who suffered from health problems throughout her life, never married. She inherited substantial Jamaican interests from her father and from two friends and lived to a comfortable old age dying at her home in Devonshire Street, Portland Place, London on 7th December 1839. Her younger sister Favell married the banker David Bevan and according to Audrey Gamble (née Bevan) who wrote a history of the Bevan family, the family failed to buy the portrait of Frances Lee back at an auction in the early twentieth century and so it rests now, beautifully restored, in the care of the Milwaukee Art Museum.