Catherine da Costa was a well-trained and accomplished miniaturist and the earliest known English-born Jewish artist. The story of Catherine and her family is a story or resilience which laid the foundation for future Jewish communities to flourish. Catherine was born in London in 1679 into a Sephardi family. Her father was Dr Fernando Moses Mendes and both of Catherine’s parents were born in Portugal and settled in London.
Fernando Mendes was a physician to Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. He was a well-known member of the Sephardi community and is still considered one of the founding fathers of English Jewry. Publicly he identified himself as Roman Catholic in order to hold his high position. Catherine Mendes was baptized at Somerset House (but given the Jewish name of Rachel) and Catherine of Braganza became her godmother. Fernando shared a household with his brother-in-law and cousin, Alvaro da Costa, a successful trader inside the East India Company. They lived at Budge Row in the City of London and at Highgate House (later called Cromwell House), where the children of both families were brought up as Jews.
Catherine married Alvaro’s eldest son, Anthony Moses da Costa, in Bevis Marks synagogue on 13 August 1698 and had six children. Like his father, Anthony was a prosperous merchant. The couple lived in Winchester Street off London Wall and in a house on Highgate Hill. Catherine learned miniature painting from Bernard Lens the younger (1682–1740), a painter at the court of King George I and George II. He was one of the first British artists to replace vellum, the most common material for miniatures, with ivory. His art and technique were very influential on young Catherine and she was a pioneer of watercolour painting on ivory. She died on 11 December 1756 in London and was buried in the Portuguese Jewish cemetery, Mile End.
She bequeathed her miniatures to her son Abraham for life, to be divided after his death between the families of her four daughters. Most of her known paintings are miniatures of her family and friends. Her miniatures of her ten-year-old son, Abraham da Costa and of a cousin are in London’s Jewish Museum. Her miniature Imaginary Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587) made with tempera on ivory around 1720, can be seen in Ham House, Surrey and a full-length watercolour portrait of her father hangs in the Bevis Marks Synagogue. The da Costas’ story is one of rejection and re-entry, sometimes leading a life under a guise in order to be part of society, admirable example of determination, resilience and artistic innovation.