Celebrities and Scandals Portrayed

Our talk on the history of British Art on 20 October 2023 caused some eyebrows to be raised, not so much because of the illustrations portrayed, but more owing to the lives of the sitters being painted.

Our guide on the subject, Jennifer, started with a look at the differences in lives and artistic styles between Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). The work of Reynolds was much inspired by Michelangelo, whilst the work of Gainsborough owed more to Van Dyck. Reynolds wanted to paint ‘History’ whilst Gainsborough wanted to paint ‘Landscapes’. Reynolds had charm and acceptance from the establishment resulting in wealth and advancement, whilst Gainsborough had the knack of upsetting the establishment, even to the point where his paintings were withdrawn from a Royal Academy Summer Show after he complained about how high they were hung on the wall.

Gainsborough had sat for a sketch so that he could be included in a painting of the academicians, but in the end his image is missing from the assembly (shown at the top)!

Jennifer then guided us through the history of the home of the Wallace Collection, and the marital complications that led to the 2nd Marquis of Hertford and the Marchioness having a difficult marriage after the involvement of the then Prince of Wales. There were moves to France, the building then became the residence of the Ambassador of Spain, and the family later moved the paintings back to London at the time of Richard Wallace, who was suspected to be a son of the 4th Marquis but born out of wedlock. Jennifer then dealt with the contested wills and the Sackville-Wests, and the conditions under which the paintings were to be housed in Manchester House, now the home of the Wallace collection and how the conditions were reinterpreted in the courts in the 20th Century.

After a short break for tea and coffee, the thread moved from the scandals to the celebrities, many being young ladies of humble birth, who through circumstance and talent had managed to rise to the top of society. They were then painted by Reynolds in classical poses, or by Gainsborough in landscapes. Many of the young ladies managed connections with royalty or the nobility, and consequently became the subject of scurrilous cartoons in various publications.

We spent time with Mrs Mary Robinson (shown above), Giovanna Baccelli, Nelly O’Brien, Lady Diana Beauclerk, Mary Nesbitt, Mrs Crouch and Kitty Fisher. We finished with Dora Jordan, who had been painted in her many ‘breeches’ roles on stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. In the interests of balance, some male celebrities were also seen, including John Philip Kemble, Gentleman John Jackson, and Colonel John Tarleton.

Jennifer promised our next session on 03 November 2023 would deal with the art on display at Kenwood House.

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