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Francis Cotes 1726 – 1770
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Francis Cotes 1726 – 1770

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Three quarter length portrait of Sir Robert Pigot (1720-1796), in the uniform of the 38th Regiment, holding his tricorn hat in his right hand, and leaning on his left arm on a mound of earth, pointing to a fort in the background.


Oil painting on canvas 50 x 40 inches (56 x 46 inches framed size) and contained in its fine original carved and giltwood Georgian fame.


Provenance: by family descent from the sitter at Patshull, Staffordshire, and subsequently Yarlington Lodge, Wincanton, in the family of the Pigot baronets until the present


Literature: Edward Mead Johnson “Francis Cotes, Complete Edition” (Phaidon, London, 1976) page 63, catalogue number 90;
Gentleman's Magazine. 1804, i 480 (obituary of the sitter)


Dated by Johnson to 1758-62. However, the Col. Pigot is wearing the uniform of the 38th Regiment of which he became Colonel on 4th February 1765. (Information from Jenny Spencer-Smith, of the National Army Museum). A dating to c.1765 is thus preferable.


Francis Cotes was the son of a pharmacist, and the eldest brother of the miniaturist Samuel Cotes. He was born in London on May 20th 1726, and was descended from an old Leicestershire family, the Coteses of Ayleston and Burbach. His ancestor John Cotes, a keen Royalist, had had his land confiscated by the Parliamentarians, and had been constrained to flee to County Roscommon in Ireland to avoid imprisonment. John Cotes's grandson, Robert, had prospered to the degree that he became mayor of Galway. His refusal to implement the Crown's instructions on the wholesale suppression of Catholics from any political or social influence brought about his trial before the Irish Parliament in 1717 on a charge of treason (a capital offence). He was acquitted, both there and by the Privy Council, but his career was effectively ruined and he left Ireland for London. Here he lived in the Strand, where Francis Cotes was born: his mother, Roberts second wife, was Elizabeth, nee Lynn, the daughter of Francis Lynn, “Secretary to the Africa Company” after whom the artist was named.

He was apprenticed to the portrait painter George Knapton (1698-1778) in about 1741, and was at first confined to pastel. Knapton had been greatly influenced by Rosalba Carriera, the great Venetian pastellist, and his pictures in this medium have a lightness and vivacity which is elusive in his more formal oil paintings. Cotes soon evinced a prodigious talent as a pastel portraitist, and soon far surpassed his teacher: in this medium he is certainly the greatest English exponent of the 18th century. Horace Walpole placed Cotes's pastels at a level of “uncommon perfection”

Cotes's first oil paintings dates from as late as 1753, and he did not seriously take up the medium until four years later. His success as a portrait painter was immediate: his patronage was extended to all levels of Society (including the Royal family), but he proved particularly adept at portraying Men of Action in the navy and the army, as well as sumptuous portraits of ladies in the opulent but relaxed fashions of the 1760's. From 1765 he took a large house and studio at 32 Cavendish Square, and established himself as the first serious fashionable rival to Reynolds and Gainsborough. He was prominent in the Society of Artists, of which he was the Director, and was a Foundation Member of the Royal Academy, at which he exhibited 18 portraits in the first two annual exhibitions in 1769 and 1770.

Although only aged 44, his health was not good, as he suffered from kidney stones, undergoing the operation (without anaesthetic) of “cutting for the stone” in 1768. This he survived, but a recurrence of the symptoms two years later induced him in desperation to take a quack medicine based on soap-lees which proved highly toxic and from which he died on July 19th 1770 at Richmond, where he was buried a few days later. His pupil, the egregiously talented pastellist John Russell, was much affected by his death: “poor, ingenious, Mr Cotes”; his fellow Royal Academician Mary Moser remarked more eloquently, in a letter to Fuseli in Rome,: “many a tear will drop on his grave, as he is not more lamented as an artist than a friend of the distressed”. His career had been successful, amd he was able to leave his wife Sarah his house in Cavendish Square with an eclectic collection of possessions. These, however, she sold in a three-day auction by Langford and Son 21-23 February 1771. His surviving oeuvre amounts to perhaps 350 pictures in oil and pastel.

Sir Robert Pigot was the second son of Richard Pigot of Westminster by Frances, daughter of Peter Goode, and was born at Patshull, Staffordshire, in 1720. His brothers were George, 1st Lord Pigot (see below, illus.) and Admiral Hugh Pigot. He joined the army as a young man, serving first in the 31st Regiment of Foot. Pigot was promoted Captain on 31st October 1751, Major on 5th May 1758, Lieutenant-colonel on 4th February 1760 and Colonel on 25th May 1772. In 1758 he was transferred to the to 70th Regiment of Foot. He was with the regiment in the south of England and in Ireland until he joined the 38th Regiment (the Staffordshires) of which he became Lieutenant-colonel on 1st October 1764.

In 1765, the 38th Regiment returned to England after an overseas posting of, remarkably, 58 years. It was posted to North America in 1774, and the following year saw action at Lexington (19th April) and, most famously, at Bunker Hill.

On the night of June 16-17, Colonial Colonel William Prescott led 1,500 men onto the peninsula. At first, Putnam, Prescott, and their engineering officer, Captain Richard Gridley, disagreed as to where they should locate their defense. Breed's Hill was viewed as much more defensible, and they decided to build their primary redoubt there. Prescott and his men, using Gridley's outline, began digging a fortification 160 feet long and 80 feet wide with ditches and earthen walls. They added ditch and dike extensions toward the Charles River on their right and began reinforcing a fence running to their left.
Around 4 a.m., a sentry on board HMS Lively spotted the new fortification. Lively opened fire, temporarily halting the Colonists' work. Aboard his flagship HMS Somerset, Admiral Samuel Graves awoke irritated by the gunfire which he had not ordered. He stopped it, only to reverse his decision when he got on deck and saw the works. He ordered all 128 guns in the harbour to fire on the Colonists' position, but the broadsides proved largely ineffective since the guns could not be elevated enough to reach the fortifications.
Prescott was a determined and conscientious commander, but his men were not so resolute. When the Colonists suffered their first casualty, Asa Pollard of Billericay, a young private killed by cannon fire, Prescott gave orders to bury the man quickly and quietly, but a large group of men gave him a solemn funeral instead, with several deserting shortly thereafter.
It took almost six hours to organize an infantry force and to gather up and inspect the men on parade. General Howe was to lead the major assault, drive around the Colonist's left flank, and take them from the rear. Lieutenant-colonel Robert Pigot on the British left flank would lead the direct assault on the redoubt. Major John Pitcairn led the flank or reserve force. It took several trips in longboats to transport Howe's forces to the eastern corner of the peninsula, known as Moulton's Hill. On a warm day, with wool tunics and full field packs of about 60 pounds, the British were finally ready by about 2 p.m.
The Colonists, seeing this activity, had also called for reinforcements. Troops reinforcing the forward positions included the 1st and 3rd New Hampshire regiments of 200 men, under Colonels John Stark and James Reed (both later became generals). Stark's men took positions along the fence on the north end of the Colonist's position. When low tide opened a gap along the Mystic River along the north-east of the peninsula, they quickly extended the fence with a short stone wall to the north ending at the water's edge on a small beach. Gridley or Stark placed a stake about 100 feet (30 m) in front of the fence and ordered that no one fire until the regulars passed it. Private (later Major) John Simpson, however, disobeyed and fired as soon as he had a clear shot, thus starting the battle.
Just prior to the action, additional reinforcements arrived, including portions of Massachusetts regiments of Colonels Brewer, Nixon, Woodbridge, Little, and Major Moore, and Callender's company of artillery.
General Howe detached both the light infantry companies and grenadiers of all the regiments available. Along the narrow beach, the far right flank of the Colonist position, Howe set his light infantry. They lined up four across and several hundred deep, led by officers in scarlet red jackets. Behind the crude stone wall stood Stark's men. In the middle of the British lines, to attack the rail fence between the beach and redoubt stood Reed's men and the remainder of Stark's New Hampshire regiment. To oppose them, Howe assembled all the flank companies of grenadiers in the first line, supported by the 5th and 52nd Regiments' line companies. The attack on the redoubt itself was led by Robert Pigot, commanding the 38th and 43rd line companies, along with the Marines.
Prescott had been steadily losing men. He lost very few to the bombardment but assigned ten volunteers to carry the wounded to the rear. Others took advantage of the confusion to join the withdrawal. Two generals did join Prescott's force, but both declined command and simply fought as individuals. By the time the battle had started, 1,400 defenders faced 2,600 regulars.
The first assaults on the fence line and the redoubt were met with massed fire at close range and repulsed, with heavy British losses. The reserve, gathering just north of the town, was also taking casualties from rifle fire in the town. Howe's men reformed on the field and made a second unsuccessful attack at the wall.
By this time, the Colonists had lost all fire discipline. In traditional battles of the eighteenth century, companies of men fired, reloaded, and moved on specific orders, as they had been trained, After their initial volley, the Colonists fought as individuals, each man firing as quickly as he could. The British withdrew almost to their original positions on the peninsula to regroup. The navy, along with artillery from Copp's Hill on the Boston peninsula, fired heated shot into Charlestown. All 400 or so buildings and the docks were completely burned, but the snipers withdrew safely.
In the third British assault the reserves were included and both flanks concentrated on the redoubt. This attack was successful. The defenders had largely run out of ammunition, reducing the battle to close combat. The British had the advantage here as their troops were equipped with bayonets on their muskets but most of the Colonists did not have them.
The British advance, and the Colonists' withdrawal, swept through the entire peninsula, including Bunker Hill as well as Breed's Hill. However, under Putnam, the Colonists were quickly in new positions on the mainland. Coupled with the exhaustion of Howe's troops, there was little chance of advancing on Cambridge and breaking the siege.
Pigot was one of the few British officers who distinguished themselves throughout the battle, although the losses of officers and men killed and wounded were notable high (little short of 50% of the British participants) and was at the head of both frontal attacks on the left of the line, prior to the ultimately successful third attack. His reward was to be gazetted full-Colonel of the 38th by George III on 11th December 1775, followed by promotion to Major-general on 29th August 1777.
In 1778 he held a command in Rhode Island, and was again promoted to Lieutenant-general on 20th November 1782.
Pigot married Anne, daughter of Allen Johnson of Kilternan, Co. Dublin, and by her had three sons and a daughter. The sons all enjoyed distinguished military careers: George, the eldest and his successor as baronet, became a Major-general in the army; Hugh, a Captain in the Royal Navy and Robert the Lieutenant-colonel of the 30th Foot. He died on 2nd August 1796. 

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