Aug 222021

Finding myself on The Wirral with a few hours to spare gave me a chance to explore Port Sunlight, the very distinctive mini-town built by Lord Lever to provide homes for his loyal workers in the soap manufacturing business. The centrepiece is the Lady Lever Gallery and it houses some fascinating pieces, ranging from Victorian furniture to tapestries and from ‘Napoleon-ana’ to Wedgwood pots, and with sculptures ancient and modern. For me the highlight was the Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun portrait of Lady Hamilton in the guise of a Bacchante (ie as a follower of Bacchus). Painted around 1792 this is one of four portraits of Emma known to have been painted by Vigée-Lebrun during her stay in Naples between 1790 and 1792. As such, Emma would just have married the besotted Sir William Hamilton. This pose, typical of her ‘attitudes’, has a lovely flowing quality. I gather that the artist was most impressed by Emma’s mass of flowing chestnut hair – but was not so impressed by the girl’s lack of intelligence and dress sense – or by her Liverpudlian accent. Purists will tell me that Emma was not Liverpudlian – she was born on the Wirral not far from where her portrait is now hanging.

Soap magnate William Hesketh Lever bought the painting in 1903 – and to me it was a star of the show.


I was also delighted to see the two paintings by Henry Robert Morland -‘ Laundry’ and ‘Ironing’. Well worth seeing.



Another ‘old friend’ I was interested in seeing was this Nollekens bust of Charles James Fox – I gather that it is one of a handful churned out either by Nollekens personally, or by craftsmen in his studio.

The Lady Lever Art Gallery houses much else of interest and will definitely merit a return visit when I am next in the area. Mind you, it is a six hour drive, given the state of the traffic on our roads leading up to an August Bank Holiday….

Jun 072020

The Bell & Anchor public house at 38-40 Hammersmith Road was closed and demolished in the 1970s to make way for the lorry park at London’s Olympia. I only mention it because it was a well-known watering hole 200 years earlier, when it appears to have been run by a Mr Wilson. As at 2 January 1782 the square pillared porch of the pub, bearing the name ‘WILLSON’ appeared in a print published by Carington Bowles. The  four-storeyed building is shown next to the  toll-house known as the Hammersmith Turnpike and the picture is devoted to showing a woman having a driving lesson.

It interests me because  I am fascinated to see how, in the 1780s, driving your own gig or phaeton became  the display of success for the female nouveau riche – and that included all the whores and hookers who made the grade to become ‘Toast of the Town’. Mary Robinson and Gertrude Mahon in particular were famous for their  driving abilities. It was a badge of their success that they not only could afford to have a carriage parked outside their premises, with a matching pair of horses and with footmen in livery, but that they themselves could take the reins and  impress the passers-by as they charged through Hyde Park (or wherever).  A fashionable conveyance did not come cheap – Mary Robinson drove one given her by her lover the Prince of Wales which had set him back 900 guineas. Think ‘Bentley Mulsanne’ – with go-faster stripes…

And of course, that meant that the women had to have driving lessons, starting off in a simple gig. This print, entitled ‘A lesson westward – or, a morning visit to Betsy Cole’ shows the young lady receiving a driving-lesson from a man who sits behind her on the edge of the cart in which is a sheaf of straw. On the side of the cart is a board inscribed “Tom Longtrot’s Academy for Young Ladies. Driving taught to an Inch, Ladies compleatly finish’d in a fortnight, for Gig, Whiskey, or Phaeton: Single Lesson half a Crown, Five for half a Guinea”.

She doesn’t seem particularly comfortable holding the whip and reins at the same time, and has just run over a piglet, one of a litter  accompanying the sow as they scatter for cover. A short, stout, man clutches the London milestone, terrified that he is about to be run over.

It appears on the Yale Center for British Art  site and was based on a water colour by Robert Dighton. Beneath the title it has the warning:

‘When once the Women take the Reins in hand;

‘Tis then too true, that Men have no command.’

The lady driver is shown not, as might be expected, in riding garb, but wearing an elaborate hat with feathers and a muslin dress. Her dress gives the game away – she is intended to be recognized as  ‘a lady of easy virtue’. It is almost easier to see the detail in its original monochrome form:

It’s not a rare print – the last one I saw on the Christie’s site went for £325 ten years ago and there are copies, coloured and uncoloured on various sites including the British Museum one. As the V&A site points out: ‘In the eighteenth century humourous mezzotints such as this were known as drolls. The taste for poking fun at women’s driving skills evidently goes back much further than the invention of the motor car.’

Having been taught the basic skills in handling a gig, managing a single horse, the next stage was to move on to an open phaeton – everyone’s idea of a really sporty conveyance. The most prestigious phaeton was the English four-wheeled  high flyer. I rather like the image of one taken from Wikipedia showing  a high flyer designed by the royal coachmakers Hoopers. It is described as being ‘with a pair of out-sized, swan-neck leaf springs at the rear and the body mounted daringly high’. Impressive – what Georgian harlot wouldn’t want to be a high-flyer driving one of these!


May 192020

At present I am researching milliner’s shops in the 1780s – an esoteric subject, I appreciate, but one which is fascinating. It is part of my research into the life of an actress who will be featured in my next-book-but-one, on whores, harlots and mistresses who made something of their lives. This particular actress started life as a milliner and I was aware that ‘milliner’ was often a euphemism for ‘whore’.

The term ‘milliner’ extended to far more than making hats and  originally described the range of accessories and fashion items sold by travelling salesmen  from Milan. By 1747 the The London Tradesman could  describe a milliner as a retailer who would ‘furnish everything to the ladies that can contribute to set off their beauty, increase their vanity or render them ridiculous’. They worked alongside others in the fashion industry: the haberdasher supplied the fabrics, the mantua-maker made up the gowns, the stay maker made the stays and the milliner brought everything together and actually made  things fashionable. If you wanted to be a la mode, you went to the milliner. It was the milliner who supplied the sashes and ribbons, the ruffles and other accessories. It was the milliner who dealt in tippits, gloves, muffs – and exotic headwear.

But working in a milliner’s shop was not without its moral dangers: the same article in The London Tradesman stated that ‘the vast resort of young Beaus and rakes to millinery shops exposes young Creatures to many Temptations, and insensibly debauches their Morals before they are capable of Vice’. It went on to warn that ‘Nine out of ten young Creatures that are obligated to serve in these shops are ruined and undone: Take a Survey of all common Women of the Town, who take their Walks between Charing-Cross and Fleet-Ditch and, I am persuaded, more than half of them have been bred milliners, have been debauched in their Houses, and are obliged to throw themselves upon the Town for want of Bread, after they have left them. Whether it is owing to the Milliners, or to the Nature of the business, or to whatever cause is owing, the Facts are clear, and the Misfortunes attending the Apprenticeship so manifest…it ought to be the last shift a young Creature is driven to.’

So I was particularly keen to locate a print I came across a few years ago, published by Carington Bowles in 1782. I found it again on the Lewis Walpole Library site at Yale University and it is entitled ‘A Morning Frolic, or the Milliners Shop’. A differently coloured version can also be found on the British Museum site which describes the scene as follows:

Interior of a milliner’s shop, the counter running across the print, behind it are three milliners, dressed in the fashion of the day with elaborately frilled muslin caps on their high-dressed hair. Two fashionably dressed men are on the near side of the counter, intent on a flirtation. One, wearing riding-dress, sits on the edge of the counter, his legs dangling, while he leans on his elbow and looks over his right shoulder towards a pretty young woman who is sewing, seated in profile to the right. The other visitor (right) lounges against the counter as he hands a “Masquerade Ticket” to a young milliner. The third milliner stands; she is sewing at one of the elaborately frilled muslin head-dresses of the day.
The print shows the arrangement of a shop at this period. The shop-window is partly visible on the left, with wares for sale suspended across it on cords. On the wall is an oval mirror in a carved frame, while on the right shelves fill a recess in the wall and support boxes, inscribed “Feathers, Love Coxcomb, Mode”. An arched-top coffer, such as milliners in street scenes are depicted as carrying, stands open on the counter, a piece of lace hanging from it. On the near side of the counter is a tall circular stool for customers. In the foreground is a Pomeranian dog. 1782

The mezzotint was hand-coloured and is based on a water-colour by the artist Robert Digby. At that stage Carington Bowles was a well-known map-printer who also produced etchings from his shop described as being a ‘Map & Print Warehouse, No.69 in St. Pauls Church Yard, London’. I rather like the idea of the pair of rakish young gentlemen debating what to do with their morning, and deciding to go and chat up the young milliners in the shop round the corner. Armed with a ticket to a masquerade, perhaps at Ranelagh Gardens, they would have thought that they were onto a sure thing – one of the girls was bound to leap at the invitation. And everyone knew  what went on in the dark recesses and quiet alleyways at Ranelagh….

May 062020

We live in an era where we take it for granted that photographs lie – where models routinely photo-shop their bikini shots to enhance their boobs, narrow their waist and  lengthen their legs. It is cheating – but it is commonplace.

What I find interesting is how, 250 years ago, artists and engravers were just as willing to  come up with phoney images to enhance their products. Take this image on the left, which appears on the Rijkmuseum site. It shows the courtesan/actress Anne Elliott, and it appeared in 1769 when it was described as being  ‘after the portrait artist Tilly Kettle and engraved by James Watson’. It didn’t sell, presumably because no-one was really interested in Anne Elliott given that she died in that same year. So the copper plate used in the engraving was sold, the face tweaked slightly, and then re-titled as ‘Miss Nancy Parsons’. It is shown on the right and appears courtesy of the Isaac and Ede site here.

Nancy was the infamous courtesan who had shacked up with the Duke of  Grafton, acting prime minister. The Duke was happy to parade Nancy on his arm when he went to the opera, or to the races at Newmarket, and she even hosted the equivalent of  dinner parties at number 10 Downing Street, in other words at his official residence.

People assumed, when Grafton’s wife had a very public affair with the Earl of Upper Ossory and had his child, and the Duke and Duchess went their separate ways and divorced, that the Duke would marry Nancy. But no, he amazed everyone by  giving Nancy the heave-ho and instead married the far more respectable Elizabeth Wrottesley. But don’t feel too sorry for Nancy, because one of the reasons why the Duke decided to end their relationship was because she was busy having an affair with the randy John Sackville, third Duke of Dorset.

All of which made Nancy a figure very much in the public eye. The press tended to show that Nancy had a raw deal, believing that Nancy was being passed over unfairly. Typical was the caricature entitled The Political Wedding, an extract of which is shown above, with the Duke exchanging wedding vows with Elizabeth, with whom he went on to live happily for 40 years and bring up no fewer than twelve children.

And here, to the left side of the caricature, is the disconsolate figure of Nancy Parsons, weeping while uttering the words: “I retire on a pension of £300 p.a. to make way for Miss Wr—y.”

Getting back to the Anne Elliott engraving, passed off as being Nancy. It  demonstrates the way that engravings were churned out in bulk – as long as an image sold, who cared if it was accurate? To add to the parody, this time it was described as being ‘by Housman after Renold’ – a spoof on  the engraver Richard Houston after Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Courtesans were the fashion icons of their day and before photography brought their features into the public domain, it was a case of ‘anything goes’. The face was altered, prettified and tidied up, but the setting, with the sitter playing the role of Juno, the peacocks to one side, the elaborate dress – they were left unaltered.

Nancy Parsons in Turkish costume, by George Willison, courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

The Reynolds portrait of Nancy, shown courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum











Nancy Parsons  had her portrait painted by the Scottish artist George Willison, as well as by Joshua Reynolds. Both show her in exotic Turkish costume. There was also a third portrait, by Thomas Gainsborough, but sadly that got stolen in a robbery at the Park Lane home of the collector Charles Wertheimer back in 1907 and has never been seen since. So, just in case any of you have this picture hiding at the bottom of a pile in a rear cupboard, this is a reminder of what the Gainsborough looked like:

At the time, when the robbery was reported in The Sphere of 16 February 1907, the Gainsborough was valued at £15,000 – two and a half times the value of the Reynolds portrait of the Honourable Mrs Charles Yorke stolen at the same time. But then, I have only ever rated a Reynolds as being worth a fraction of a Gainsborough ….

Nancy Parsons is on my mind at present because I am researching her for my forthcoming book ‘Whores, Harlots and Mistresses – the fashionistas of the 18th Century.’ Ideas of beauty have altered over the centuries, but you can’t take it away from Nancy: she sure used what nature had given her.  Energetically. She moved on from Lord Grafton and ended up married to Viscount Maynard. Her husband was an old goat who happily let her introduce a 19-year-old into their household, and they lived as a threesome in Italy for a number of years. A case of eating your gelato and having it….

Aug 022019

Fake Or Fortune? Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce with the painting 'Peniston Lamb II', originally valued at £8,000 (Photo: Ben Fitzpatrick/BBC/PA Wire)Fake Or Fortune? Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce with the painting ‘Peniston Lamb II’, originally valued at £8,000 (Photo: Ben Fitzpatrick/BBC/PA Wire)


Last night the BBC aired the latest episode of ‘Fake or Fortune?’, which examined this portrait of Peniston Lamb, concluding that it was painted by a young Thomas Lawrence rather than by the fragrant Maria Cosway, as previously believed. The programme highlighted the vagaries of the art world – the change in attribution meant a difference to the price tag  from £8,000 to £500,000. Strange – because a fine painting is a fine painting, and I had not realized that a Maria Cosway was valued so little. It reminded me that I had done a post about Maria some time ago, so I thought I would repeat it:

On the left, Richard Cosway’s hauntingly attractive portrait of his young wife, and on the right, her own self-portrait.

The story of the life of Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Hadfield (later Cosway) is a remarkable one by any standards. Italian born in 1759, she was originally one of eight children but four were murdered by their insane nursemaid, who was caught after being overheard discussing how she was planning to kill the young Maria as well. Small wonder the girl was a bit unstable!

She showed an aptitude for painting at an early age and when she came to London in 1779 she attracted the attention of Richard Cosway, well known miniaturist and middle-aged roué. They married two years later, despite a twenty year age difference.

   Wax portrait of Maria






She had an interesting  life of romance to say the least. A beautiful woman, she quickly attracted admirers when she came to London, becoming known as ‘the Goddess of Pall-Mall’ when the couple moved to  Schomberg House House and opened a salon there. Later the couple moved to larger premises in Stratford Place. It was the venue for fashionable people to meet and to be seen.


An extract from Maria’s painting entitled ” Georgiana as the Goddess Diana”courtesy of Chatsworth House





Like her husband she also painted miniatures :

    (this being one of her later works, circa 1820)






She was  a fine artist with a celebrity status of her own and she exhibited some thirty pictures at the Royal Academy in a twenty year period  from 1781. I must confess that many of her paintings are not to my personal taste, particularly the ones with mythological scenes and wing-ed nymphs!  She was also a hugely accomplished musician and composer. She entertained royalty in London, and later, the Bonaparte family in France.                                    © National Portrait Gallery, London

“A View from Mr. Cosway’s Breakfast-Room Pall Mall, with the Portrait of Mrs Cosway (Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway (née Hadfield) stipple engraving, published 1789, by William Russell Birch”

Later on a trip to Paris with her husband in 1786 she was introduced to the recently widowed Thomas Jefferson, the American Envoy to the Court of Versailles and who was living in Paris at the time. He was 43, she was 27. Jefferson fell in love at first sight.  To begin with they were inseparable companions sampling the delights of Paris, sharing a similar love of art, architecture and music (Jefferson was a talented violinist). But after six weeks Richard Cosway got tired of the besotted Jefferson and sent his wife  back to London. Maria was the subject of Jefferson’s 4000 word letter entitled ‘A Dialogue between the Head and the Heart’  written in October 1786. There followed a passionate if sometimes one-sided correspondence which was to last for the rest of Jefferson’s  life. They met up again in Paris.Theirs appears to have been a platonic romance (Maria was a strict catholic girl with a convent education to terrify her into fidelity) but the ‘affair’ rumbled on for many years. On the occasion when Maria left for Italy and he for America he wrote  “One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart.”

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson, attributed by some to Maria Cosway.





She travelled extensively in Europe after her marriage (and not necessarily partnered by her husband). The relationship with her husband was a curious one – they had a daughter (who died as a young girl) but Richard made no secret of his numerous affairs. For a while it suited them to remain married, but eventually the marriage was annulled.

In 1802 Maria went to Paris and started a girls’ school there. She was then asked by the Duke of Lodi to return to Italy and found a  convent and college for girls. She did so, and on 1st April 1812 the school at the Convent di Santa Maria delle Grazie opened its doors for the first time. She remained closely involved in the running of the college and her work as an educationalist led to her being awarded the rank of Baroness by the Austrian Emperor Franz I. She died at Lodi on 5th January 1838.

And O.K. you get one mawkish picture with wing-ed dryads. It is entitled “An Angel and Putti accompanying a child’s soul to Heaven” and is not to my taste at all…..

Jun 052019

The Macaroni Painter at work – a dig at Cosway by the artist Robert Dighton.

A visit yesterday to Powderham Castle, near Exeter, reminded me of a post I had previously done on the artist Richard Cosway. Why? Because  he painted several of the paintings on display there, including a rather unsubtle one, now in the chapel, of Christ, in which the artist has inserted his own portrait in the top left hand corner. Apparently suggesting that “I was there at the crucifixion” didn’t go down too well -and the picture languished in  an attic for many years…

Powderham has been home to the Courtenay family for many centuries. The Courtenay’s  were variously either Earl of Devon or Viscount of Devon (no link at all with the Cavendish family who were the Dukes of Devonshire). And  Cosway was a friend of William Courtenay, who eventually succeeded to the title of Viscount Devon, largely on account of  the fact that none of his 13 sisters, all older,  were able to claim the title. Being brought up in a female-dominated family may have had nothing to do with the fact that he preferred male company – rather a lot of it. So much so that his notoriety as a homosexual eventually led to  criminal charges being brought against him. He avoided trial – and execution – by fleeing the country and died in exile in France.

Richard Cosway was a family friend and is often referred to as  the Macaroni Painter. He was born on Guy Fawkes Day 1743  in Tiverton, Devon. He was educated at Blundell’s School before being packed off to London as a twelve-year old. He quickly showed his exceptional talents as an artist, opening his own business as a painter in 1760. Before he was thirty he was sufficiently established to be one of the first associate members of the Royal Academy  – an extraordinary achievement.

File:Cosway, Self-portrait.jpgHis specialities were portrait miniatures. This is a self-portrait done in 1770.


and this one, from the National Portrait Gallery, shows him in a slightly less dandy-ish pose:      File:Richard Cosway by Richard Cosway.jpg

In 1781 Cosway married the Anglo-Italian artist Maria Hadfield. It is far from certain that their marriage was more than a sham – he was twenty years her senior, a notorious libertine, but someone who took a keen interest in her career. He drew her on several occasions, including this lithograph.File:Richard Cosway - Retrato de Mrs. Cosway.JPG

The pair led somewhat separate lives, to the extent of travelling abroad with other partners, but when  they were in London together their salon in Pall Mall became extremely fashionable. His wife was nick-named ‘the goddess of Pall Mall’. Someone else gave him the epithet of ‘the little monkey.’ Their marriage was eventually annulled.

Cosway was a close friend of the future King George IV and in 1785 was reportedly awarded the title ‘Painter to the Prince of Wales (the only person to receive the title).  In his later years Cosway suffered from mental health problems, spending time in various institutions. He died in 1821. Here are a few examples of his works:


 Oil painting attributed to Cosway                                                                                                                                                             Miniature, ‘unknown gentleman’

(With his miniatures Cosway was unusual in using transparent water colours on ivory, allowing the tone of the ivory to shine through).


Richard Cosway - Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter (1752-1809), Three-Quarter-Length, in a White Dress with a Chiffon Shawl, in a Landscape      Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter, oil on canvas.

                                           And here, his portrait of Mrs Joseph Smith
                  Mrs Joseph Smith Lámina gicléeCosway also did a fine miniature of the Duke of Wellington, shown below. 

The Duke of Wellington

His miniature of the Prince of Wales, painted in 1780, shows him to be an interesting artist – not one of the greats, but certainly popular in his day.

As an aside, Powderham Castle is a great place to visit, on the banks of the River Exe. It is something of a melange of styles – some medieval, some Georgian and some Victorian gothic. But it is amazing to think that the family have managed to hold on to it for so long.

The Prince of Wales

Mar 202019

love-at-300dpiFor the cover on my book “In Bed with the Georgians – Sex Scandal and Satire in the 18th Century” I chose a print based on a painting by William Matthew Peters. I subsequently acquired an original print of the lady in question, thanks to the generosity of one of the readers of this blog, for which I am extremely grateful.

The Rev W M Peters

The Rev W M Peters

Peters was quite an interesting character. Some books describe him as “ a portrait and history painter from the Isle of Wight” while others ascribe to him an Irish birth and ancestry. His father appears to have been a garden designer working in Dublin and who had originally done work for Lord Cobham at Stowe. As a youth Peters went twice to Italy to study the works of the great Renaissance artists. He returned from the first trip (to Rome) in the early 1760s and then went again to Rome, and Venice, in the early to mid 1770s. He gained the somewhat over-egged title of “the English Titian” – due to a series of portraits of ladies in various stages of undress. He apparently painted them as a tribute to the works of Titian, intending to emulate Titian’s “Venus” by showing modern-day seductresses. However, whereas Titian painted his Venus stretched out full length on her bed, entirely naked, Peters showed only the head, shoulders and breasts. Peters provided his ladies with contemporary night-caps along with familiar names of the period eg Lydia, Belinda, Sylvia (and Lucrece…?).

Lydia. circa 1777 . shown courtesy of the Tate Museum

Lydia. circa 1777 . shown courtesy of the Tate Museum

Described as "a Study for Lydia" - same hat, same breasts... It poses the question: how much study did he really need to do?

Described as “a Study for Lydia” – same hat, same breasts… It poses the question: how much study did he really need to do?!



He may have seen them as tributes to the great Italian Masters, but the public saw them as erotic art which they could buy as pin-ups, and copies appeared in print many times over. Not all the critics were in favour. When Peters exhibited The Woman in Bed at the RA summer exhibition the critic in The Morning Chronicle of 26 April 1777 noted: “We cannot … help thinking that the inviting leer of the lady, and her still more inviting bosom, ought to be consigned to the bedchamber of a bagnio, where each would doubtless provoke a proper effect; in the present situation they serve to prevent the pictures around them from being so much seen and admired as their merits demand, for every man who has either his wife or daughter with him, must, for decency sake, hurry them away from that corner of the room”

Belinda - the basis for the print used on my book cover

Belinda – the basis for the print used on my book cover, but showing rather less décolletage – and a different hat!

Matthew Peters had trained in London under the portraitist Thomas Hudson and when he returned from his second Italian tour Peters had moved into a house belonging to Lord Grosvenor in Millbank. It was then, presumably urged on by patrons such as Lord Grosvenor, that he began to paint his studies of courtesans. And let’s face it, Lord Grosvenor certainly knew a lot of courtesans… I can just imagine him coming home after a torrid night between the sheets at a local brothel and saying to Peters “Look who I’ve brought for you to paint.”

By the late 1770s Peters, was getting increasingly worried about the damage to his reputation as a serious artist, and so abandoned painting courtesans. This became even more important to him when he decided to become ordained in 1781, Subsequently he was appointed Honorary Chaplain to the Royal Academy, and was highly embarrassed by his quasi-erotoc offerings. According to the Tate Gallery he expressed “a profound regret that he ever devoted his talents to such subjects, not only because they were degrading to his character but [also] from sincere moral regret.” He went on to become rector of Eaton, Leicestershire, then rector of Wolsthorpe, Leicestershire, in 1788, and became Prebendary of Lincoln in 1795 He was also chaplain to the Prince Regent, so we can safely say that he was not just a man of the canvas but also a man of the cloth….

In 1777 he had been elected a full Member of the Royal Academy. He married Margaret, daughter of the Rev John Knowsley and they had various children including a son, Edmund, who took the surname of Turton in order to receive a benefit under the will of Dr John Edmund. He carried on painting – mostly mawkish pictures of young children ascending to Heaven, but I rather go along with the comment on his works which appeared in the Dictionary of Irish Artists in 1913 “Peters’ work as a painter was very unequal; but in his portraits he shows a strength and ease in painting, with good colour, which raises him to a higher level than has hitherto been accorded him. Had he devoted his talents to portraiture instead of wasting them on his historical pictures and his ill-drawn, badly-coloured angels and pious children by which he is best known, he would have been regarded, and taken his place, as one of the best painters of the English school.”

Peters died at Brasted Place, Kent, on 20th March, 1814. I confess that I rather like his seductive nudes with their ‘come hither’ look. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have any of his other  paintings hanging on my study wall. My book is intended as a rattling read through the bedroom antics of Georgian Britain, and I am grateful to the Rev. Peters for providing me with a most suitable cover.


Jan 072019

 Thomas Lawrence, 1769 – 1830

One of the people I am considering including in my next-book-but-one (about 18th Century heroes who  have missed out on the spotlight of fame) is Thomas Lawrence.    At first sight the inclusion of Thomas Lawrence, knight of the realm, painter in ordinary to His Majesty King George III, and a President of the Royal Academy, may seem somewhat incongruous. But his inclusion is justified just in order to show that the spotlight of fame can be turned off as well as on – Lawrence enjoyed fame in his lifetime but fell out of favour during the Victorian era, largely as a result of his perceived immoral lifestyle. Nowadays, we have come to expect that our painters  lead a bohemian lifestyle – to drink, experiment with drugs, fornicate and generally set a bad example. It is seen, no doubt, as being part of the artist ‘exploring the inner self’. But Lawrence had the misfortune to be followed almost immediately by the moralising Victorians, who tut-tutted at his indiscretions, and deemed him unsuitable and unworthy of praise. And so, the spotlight was turned off, and this magnificent artist has never quite regained his place alongside the British Greats of the world of painting.

Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

It was not always thus: after Gainsborough died in 1788 and Reynolds died in 1792 Lawrence seemed to have taken over their mantle (although many would argue that he was a far finer portrait painter than Reynolds). He became the artist of his generation, the one commissioned to paint the portraits of all the movers and shakers of the Regency era. And all this from a man who was largely self-taught.

He was born in Bristol on 13 April 1769, one of only five out of sixteen children in the family to survive childhood. His father moved from Bristol to run the Black Bear Inn at Devizes, and the precocious young Thomas was already proving something of an artist and an entertainer. Father would apparently ask the tavern’s customers ‘Which would you rather, young Tom recite a verse or paint your likeness?’

The tavern-keeping venture was a failure and his father was declared bankrupt. This left Thomas, then ten years of age, as the family bread-winner. He moved to Bath, aged eleven, and exhibited a precocious talent for portraiture, charging three guineas a sitting. He was entirely self-taught, using pastels at first before graduating to oils. His reputation soon spread and, still in his teens, he moved to London and installed his parents in a house in Greek Street and opened a studio at 41 Jermyn Street. Not bad for an eighteen-year old!

He enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy but that sojourn did not last long – portrait painting was his only real interest. Over the ensuing thirty years he became the pre-eminent artist of his generation. His portraits of Nelson, Wellington and George IV are iconic representations of some of the great figures of Regency England.

Here are a few more which I admire.  Left to right, Frederic Lock, Margaret Countess of Blessington and Lady Selena Meade:





Lawrence had a fairly alarming habit – at least, alarming for young and impressionable female sitters – of starting a commission by invading their personal space, coming right up alongside them and, from a distance of just a few inches, sketching a specific detail such as the nose or eyes. It must have been unnerving for anyone not used to feeling on their neck the warm breath of an adult male! No wonder half the female sitters look as though they have something very specific on their minds…

And here is Sarah Siddons (a regular sitter, even though he was knocking off both her daughters!) and a splendid portrait of Elizabeth Farren (later Countess of Derby).


With Lawrence it seems that it was not so much a case of falling in love, so much as falling in love too often, famously with two of the daughters of the actress Sarah Siddons at much the same time. He alternated between the two sisters, Sally and Maria, and on different occasions proposed marriage to them both. The affairs caused enormous hurt to the family and at one stage this led him to have a complete nervous breakdown. In all likelihood Sarah Siddons herself held a torch for the charming artist, and certainly Lawrence seemed enraptured by her as well, painting her portrait in at least fourteen occasions. The rumours got so bad that in 1804 Mr Siddons felt compelled to take out an advertisement in the newspapers of the day, expressly denying that his wife was having an affair with Lawrence. It is perhaps odd that the denial came from Mr Siddons, rather than from his wife – or indeed from Lawrence himself. Some years later, Lawrence was to fall head over heels in love with Sarah’s niece, Fanny Kemble, a girl who, more than any other, closely resembled Sarah Siddons in her youth. Curious, n’est ce pas?

Some of the pain and anguish, and burning sadness, appears in the portraits he painted. By and large he seemed to excel at painting beautiful people, male or female. He knew how to bring out the best in good-looking sitters. However, he was hopeless at finishing projects; on one occasion taking twelve years to complete a commission and, on his death, his studio was found to be littered with unfinished paintings, started and then abandoned.

Unfinished portrait of William Wilberforce


Over the years he painted portraits of royalty, including the one on the right of Queen Charlotte. She hated it so much she refused to accept delivery of it and it remained in his studio until he died. Why didn’t she like it? Probably because it captured something of the sadness of the woman behind the royal mask – and maybe she just didn’t like being shown as a sort of Snow Queen, locked away inside her palace.

In time Lawrence was admitted to the Royal Academy, and in 1820 was made President of that august body. He had previously been appointed ‘painter-in-ordinary’ to George III, was knighted in 1814, and travelled through Europe at the request of the Prince Regent painting foreign leaders such as Napoleon ll, the Pope, the Tsar of Russia and miscellaneous Arch-Dukes, Kings and Emperors.

At the time of his death, Lawrence appears to have been at the height of his powers (but was nevertheless heavily in debt). He died on 7th January 1830 and almost immediately seems to have been airbrushed from history. Perhaps it was the Victorian reaction to the excesses and immorality of the Regency era, but the fact remains that from a height of popularity which far exceeded Constable and Turner, he then slumped into relative obscurity. Today, we may know his paintings, but we rarely see his name.

Lawrence was buried two weeks after his death, in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The artist Turner was one of the mourners, and he painted this sketch of the funeral from memory. Almost immediately there was a reaction against Thomas and his legacy. He went out of fashion totally, and the repugnance felt by society over his behaviour towards Sarah Siddons and her daughters was re-ignited in 1904 when his personal letters were published. The correspondence shows a highly emotional side to Lawrence, and he writes of his uncontrollable feelings and his anguish, while Mrs Siddons talks of ‘this wretched madman’s frenzy’ and of his ‘flying off in ANOTHER whirlwind’.

On the anniversary of his death, spare a thought for poor Tom: a much underrated artist! Yes, I think he will get a place in ‘Georgian Giants – the unsung heroes of the Industrial Revolution’.  Pen & Sword Books are due to publish it later in the year.

Meanwhile a break from blogging for a couple of weeks – I am off on a  tour to Vietnam via Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand on board the Good Ship Diamond (Princess Line) lecturing on a few more novel aspects of 17th and 18th century history. Well, novel for me: The maiden voyage of the Batavia (a tale of  mass murder, mutiny and rape); Piracy in the Indian Ocean; the race between Nicholas Baudin and Matthew Flinders to circumnavigate Australia and to map the coastline of the entire continent; castaways in the Pacific Ocean; and finally, the true story of William Bligh, captain of the Bounty. Why hello, sailors, here I come!

Jun 032018

Isabella Beetham, born Isabella Robinson (c.1744-1825) was an interesting character. She came from a wealthy family but when she was twenty she eloped with an itinerant Irish actor called Edward Beetham. Her family cut off her maintenance and she was forced to take up portraiture as a way of keeping the wolf from the door. She specialized in making paper cut-outs (we now generally call them silhouettes, but they were then called shades). She then studied with the London minituarist John Smart, and started to paint the silhouette of the sitter (rather than to cut it with scissors). She painted on glass as well as on paper, and some of the results are really beautiful.

Meanwhile her husband continued to work on the London stage. He also invented things – initially the roll-up weighted safety curtain to be used at theatres to prevent fire from spreading. But there was insufficient money to pay to take out a patent and the idea was soon copied by others, and he never made his fortune from it. Another invention – and one which he did patent, was called a “patent Mangle with Rollers”. Basically this was a primitive form of washing tub where the wooden rollers were kept pressed together so that the moisture in the clothes was wrung out. It was a considerable financial success and Edward was able to move in to shop premises at 26 and 27 Fleet Street in London. He sold his mangles downstairs and Isabella did her painting upstairs.

One of the things which make Isabella so collectable, and distinguishes her from the many gifted but anonymous amateurs who did paper cut-outs and painted silhouettes, was that she started backing her creations with a trade label giving her name. From around 1774 her works were backed with a splendidly verbose label of which part reads “By application leagued with Good Natural Gifts Mrs Beetham has enabled herself to remedy a Difficulty Much lamented and Universally Experienced by PARENTS, LOVERS AND FRIENDS.The former, assisted by her Art, may see their offspring In any part of the Terraqueous Globe. Nor can Death obliterate the features from their fond Remembrance. LOVERS the Poets have advanced, ‘Can waft a sigh from Indus to the Pole. She will gratify them with more substantial though Ideal Intercourse by placing the Beloved Object to their View. FRIENDSHIP is truly valuable was ever held a Maxim.…”

OK, so that is a bit over the top, but at least it means her works can be identified!

An advertisement, published in 1792, read:

PROFILES:  Mrs. BEETHAM, who has ever been distinguished as one of the most eminent who ever attempted PROFILE LIKENESSES, continues to execute them with that Taste and Elegance which remains unrivalled. She paints them on Chrystals, ornamented with gold and silver, displaying the hair and drapery in a manner more beautiful than can be conceived till seen: and if not the most striking likeness, no gratuity will be expected. She likewise finishes them on IVORY, COMPOSITION, AND PAPER, for RINGS, LOCKETS, BRACELETS, &c.

Time of Sitting, One Minute

Specimens to be seen at her house, no. 27, Fleet Street”.

In the early 1790s, the Beetham’s oldest daughter, Jane, began working with her mother, and continued to do so until she got married in 1797. A label from that period noted that “Mrs. And Miss BEETHAM” were creating “PROFILE LIKENESSES.” Jane  exhibited several of her works at the Royal Academy between 1794 and 1816, sometimes using the name ‘Beetham’, sometimes dropping an ‘e’ and calling herself ‘Betham’ and occasionally using her married name of ‘Read’








And, just in case I am accused of bias by not showing any male sitters, here are a couple of her portraits of  two splendid-looking gentlemen, courtesy of Bonhams auction house.





(For the biographical information I am indebted to an article by Joy Ruskin Hanes  in the New England Antiques Journal). I have dusted off this blog for re-issue because in the summer I am giving a talk in the West Midlands to a group of antique dealers and collectors – featuring silhouettes of the 18th Century.


Mar 232017
Robert Dighton, self-portrait, 1787 © National Portrait Gallery

Robert Dighton, self-portrait, 1787 © National Portrait Gallery

Robert Dighton, born in London around 1752, was part of a whole tribe of Dighton’s who featured as artists, engravers and art sellers in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries. He was the son of John Dighton, printseller, and went on to spawn Robert (military portraits), Dennis (general military pictures) and Richard, who succeeded to his father’s business drawing portraits and selling them from his studio.

Robert Dighton senior flourished at a time when “drolls” were in fashion – gentle caricatures of mannerisms, fashion etc (as distinct from the more overtly critical and sometimes savage lampoons of say Gillray, or Cruickshank).

An example is his almost affectionate drawing called “Derby & Joan or the platonic lovers, a farce'” (showing the famous actress Elizabeth Farren, later to become Countess of Derby, and Edward Smith Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby). The relationship between the recently widowed Earl and the famous beauty had fascinated society. This is Dighton’s take, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, published in November 1795:

NPG D9306; 'Derby & Joan or the platonic lovers, a farce' (Elizabeth, Countess of Derby; Edward Smith Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby) by and published by Robert Dighton

And here is Gillray’s picture from 1796 of the same  couple, looking at paintings at a forthcoming auction at Christies:

Dighton v Gillray

Back to Dighton and his drolls, “A Fashionable Lady in Dress and Undress”

Dighton4As an illustration of his skill as an artist and engraver here are a couple of mezzotints courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library and which came out as part of  a whole series of ‘calendar girls’, one per month, in 1784/5. They were sold by Carington Bowles, a popular print publisher of the day.

First, “March or Mars”


Second, “October or Octobre”


I find the fashion  detail – fabrics, styles and so on, fascinating. Carington Bowles especially sold maps, and Dighton enjoyed doing comic maps to amuse the public under the heading of “Geography Bewitched”. Here, copyright of the British Museum, are Scotland:


and Ireland:

Dighton 3

The National Portrait Gallery gives us this 1801 print by Dighton from a book entitled ‘Descriptions of battles by sea & land, in two volumes, from the Kings Library’s at Greenwich & Chelsea’

Droll indeed, but by now the fifty year old Dighton was up to no good. He had opened a shop selling prints and artworks in Charing Cross. In 1806 it was discovered that he was in the habit of visiting the British Museum, chatting up one of the printroom curators by the name of  the Reverend William Beloe, and doing free portraits for him and his family. While the good reverend’s back was turned he would then lift the odd Rembrandt  print from the Museum collection and then calmly walk out with the stolen print hidden in his own portfolio of sketches. Simples! He would then flog them in his shop. When caught he confessed all, and was fortunate to avoid prosecution by agreeing to hand back the unsold items which he had lifted, and to help track down some of the ones he had already sold. The hapless curator was not so lucky and was sacked on the spot.

Dighton was forced to spent a few years lying low in Oxford and Bath, his reputaion in tatters, before returning to London in 1810 to re-open his shop which he ran jointly with his sons. He died in 1814.

To end with, his evocative “Windy Day” showing the outside of  (his?) printshop

Dighton windy day

and my favourite of his calendar girls, August, doing a spot of fishing:

Dighton August