Today marks the 294th birthday of one of my favourite English rococo portraitists supreme, Sir Joshua Reynolds RA FRS FRSA (1723-1792). We’ll leave that Gainsborough character out of this.
To celebrate, here’s the rundown on one of his most intriguing depictions of eighteenth-century upper-crustiness. Reynolds’ paint handling here is as flawlessly polished as ever, rendered in a toned-down form of his nobility-boosting ‘grand manner.’
In truth, this composition is quite drab in comparison with some of his others. Yet the mix of Reynolds’ raw and academic talents with the identity of his sitter and her unconventional domestic tale, makes for an inimitable piece of art history.
Portrayed in brushy painterly style is Lady Elizabeth Foster, who later became the Duchess of Devonshire. Her ruffed snowy lace dress, accentuated by a thick silk sash of oceanic blue, lush powdered grey curls, and profusely rouged cheeks are evocative of the refined and romantic aesthetic of the Rococo period.
Christened Elizabeth Christiana Hervey on 13 May 1758 in Suffolk, the sitter was informally called Bess. The daughter of Frederick Hervey and Elizabeth Davers, Bess spent her childhood in relative poverty in Ireland and on the European continent. Fortunes changed drastically when Hervey became 4th Earl of Bristol in 1779, but by this time, Bess was already married to John Foster, an Irish MP.
The marriage dissolved, Bess gave up custody of her sons to Foster and returned to England, forced to live in reduced circumstances.
In 1782, Bess met the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire in stylish Bath. Seizing an opportunity to improve her circumstances, she attached herself to the emotionally-starved Duchess, and succeeded so smoothly that when the peers returned home, she was invited to accompany them.
Bess eventually usurped her hostess by providing the Duke with constant companionship—not only becoming his mistress, but the next duchess following the death of her friend, Georgiana. After the Duke’s death, Bess lived fashionably alone in Piccadilly before moving to Rome, where she became a doting patron of the arts, and found the last love of her life — Cardinal Hercule Consalvi, secretary of state to the Vatican.
The principal Devonshire residence was in London, but when the odd ménage a trois did come to Chatsworth House, the permanent location of this work, they filled it with friends and relations. The house was open to the public, and on one day a month dinner was provided for whoever came to visit.
This image of Bess was completed by Reynolds in 1787; five years into her playing ducal house, and late in his career that marked him as one of the most significant European painters to ever grapple with canvas. Through study of ancient and Italian Renaissance ideals, he brought great dignity to British portraiture.
Reynolds was born the son of a headmaster and was inherently of a more educated background than that of most painters. He was apprenticed in 1740 to the London society portraitist Thomas Hudson, and set up practice shortly after returning from intense studies abroad in Italy. When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, Reynolds was elected its first president.
Believing history painting to be the most patrician of tasks set before painters, he had little opportunity to practice it, and his greatest works remain his portraits. His paintings are not perfectly preserved due to faulty technique, and unstable chemical compounds, and this portrait of Bess is no exception. The carmine reds have faded, leaving flesh-tones paler than intended, and the bitumen used in the blacks tends to readily crack.
Sources: Knowles, Rachel, “Lady Elizabeth Foster, later Duchess of Devonshire”, Regency History Blog, 19 October 2012
“Sir Joshua Reynolds”, Paintings, The National Gallery online
“William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811), 18th Century, Chatsworth online