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Why this tiny portrait of Bishop of Derry's daughter is so very desirable

By Amanda Poole

A 200-year-old miniature portrait of the Bishop of Derry’s colourful daughter Bess could fetch a record £50,000 at auction at Sotheby’s next week. If the three-inch high watercolour reaches its estimate, it would set a new world record for a work by artist Richard Cosway.

The current world record for a Cosway miniature is £36,500. This was paid at Sotheby's in London on April 16, 2008 for his 1795 image of Susan, Marchioness of Blandford.

Aristocratic beauty, Lady Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Foster started life as Lady Hervey. Irresistible to both men and women, she was known to be very sexually liberated and became embroiled in many scandalous relationships throughout her life.

The daughter of the fourth Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Derry from 1768 to 1803, her father once remarked: “When God created the human race, he made men, women and Herveys.”

A society girl, young Bess is said to have had a wide range of lovers, including three dukes, a count, an earl and a cardinal, Ercole Consalvi. She is also believed to have been part of a love triangle with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, the former Lady Georgina Spencer, an ancestor of Princess Diana. When the Duchess died Bess, who had two illegitimate children to the Duke, became his wife. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), she was educated at home but spent her formative years in semi-poverty abroad and in Ireland.

“Elizabeth Foster was a witness and participant in Whig politics between 1784 and 1809 and, as Elizabeth Cavendish, an active patron of Rome's classical heritage between 1813 and 1824.

“Foster's relationship with the Duke and Duchess mystified society. There were many who assumed that she was at one time the lover of both and there is circumstantial evidence to support this.”

The ODNB added: “She was frequently labelled artificial and duplicitous but she retained the love and trust of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, for 25 years and afterwards the unceasing companionship of Cardinal Consalvi.”

The portrait will be auctioned next Wednesday.

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