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….