‘When shall we three meet again,
In thunder, in lighting or in rain.‘ (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene I)
‘…something wicked this way comes.’
As the eighteenth century slowly approached its end, things were getting darker on the artistic scene. Ghosts, vampires and witches suddenly appeared on canvases of painters such as Henry Fuseli, Goya and William Blake. Dark side of the imagination began to shape works of art as well as literature, and the aesthetic of sublime slowly crept in. This was the answer to the excessive coldness, lightness and rationality of Classicism. In times when this was painted, public tastes were inclined towards the supernatural and Gothic, especially with theatre-goers who loved scenes from Macbeth. ‘Paint the witch!‘ replaced the more barbaric ‘Burn the witch!’.
Although the subject of this scene hints at the later developments of Romanticism, its execution is true to the styles of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, two artists whose style Gardner emulated, and often borrowed ideas for composition and arrangement of figures. This is an utterly charming and dreamy portrayal of three witches from Macbeth. There’s nothing scary or disturbing about it, and these three ladies are certainly prettier than Shakespeare had intended his witches to be, but these are not just three witches, oh no, Gardner actually portrayed three friends, society hostesses, art lovers and supporters of Whig party in this portrait.
The figure on the left, with long brown hair, is Elizabeth Lamb (nee Milbanke), Viscountess Melbourne. Witch on the right, dressed in splendid, sparkly black robe with zodiac symbols on it and tiny golden details, is Anne Seymour Damer (nee Conway) who was also an amateur sculptor. She has a typical black ‘witch’ hat and holds a magic wand in her right hand. In the middle is the most extravagant and well remembered out of all three; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, famous for her beauty, bold fashion statements, gambling and partying (much like Kate Moss today), her affair and an unhappy marriage. Along with a hat, her beautiful head is covered with gauze veil, and while she holds the sumptuous white silk fabric of her dress with one hand, she uses other to throw some herbs or blue flowers in the cauldron. Despite portraying a Shakespearean scene, which is a great task for the imagination, Gardner didn’t really use it, but rather chose to follow the fashion of the day; both in clothing the ‘witches’ wear and the style and composition of the painting itself.
High society lady, writer and diarist Lady Mary Coke (1727-1811) wrote in her diary of ‘the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Melburn, and Mrs Damer all being drawn in one picture in the Characters of the three Witches in Macbeth … They have chosen that Scene where they compose their Cauldron, but instead of “finger of Birth-strangled babe, etc” their Cauldron is composed of roses and carnations and I daresay they think their charmes more irresistible than all the magick of the Witches‘. (*)
Although I find the whole painting aesthetically pleasing, and very fitting for the mood of these post-Halloween days, I must say a thing or two about the brushstrokes and the play of light. Gardner beautifully portrayed their dresses, painting in soft, playful and refined strokes, using gouache and chalk. And the light; see how the bronze cauldron glistens, smoke arises like in a dream, and the reflections of the fire on the gorgeous silk dresses of the witches. I should also mention the possible allegorical meaning of the painting; since all three women were interested in politics and publicly supported the Whig party, it is possible that Gardner painted the cauldron as a symbol of ‘shadowy political machinations as leading members of the Devonshire House circle.’ (*)