Tag Archives: British Portrait Painting

Witches Round the Cauldron by Daniel Gardner (1775)

5 Nov

When shall we three meet again,

In thunder, in lighting or in rain.‘ (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene I)

by Daniel Gardner, gouache and chalk, 1775Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775

‘…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.’ (*)

Ladies in Sweet Melancholic Contemplation

3 May

A few eighteenth century paintings caught my attention recently, mostly works of Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney. The thing that connects these portraits is a distinctly contemplative and melancholic mood.

1785-86. Thomas Gainsborough - Mrs. Richard Brinsley SheridanThomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1785-87

I am mesmerised by Gainsborough’s flickering brushstrokes every time I gaze at this painting. Every detail of it exudes movement, certain sweet turmoil, a sense of anticipation and sadness that something so anxiously awaited might never really occur.

The first thing one notices in this painting is the mood of exuberant restlessness: lush and unbridled tree branches dance in the wind, tiny leaves rustle a melancholic hymn in the solitude of the forest glade, her hair and translucent gauze kerchief flutter in the wind. Seems like Gainsborough painted a romantic heroine rather than a bourgeois lady. Well, the mood of this painting is distinctly romantic and sublime, but the lady is not a virginal maiden from Horace Walpole or Ann Radcliffe’s novels, but a prominent Georgian era musician Elizabeth Ann Linley.

Captured for eternity wearing a salmon coloured dress with muslin sleeves and a blue sash, this pretty, talented and wistful lady died of consumption a few years after this was painted. She was only thirty-eight years old. Not knowing her story, but simply looking at her sad gaze and untamed nature around her, awakens the imagination. A thought occurs: All things must pass (George Harrison). Only art is capable of rising above transience, and Romantics knew it. Still, intricate fashion is one of the reason why Gainsborough’s portraits are so beloved and aesthetically pleasing.

Note the importance of nature in this painting. Yeah, British portraits of the time usually had trees and clouds as a backdrop (unlike French who preferred being painted indoors to showcase their fine furniture) but here nature is almost as important as the lady. ‘Nature’ meant many things to the Romantics. As suggested above, it was often presented as itself a work of art, constructed by a divine imagination, in emblematic language. (source) This emphasis on nature is reminiscent of a literary movement that was just at its beginning at the time this was painted – Romanticism.

To put this painting in the historical context and connect it to Romanticism: Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther were published in 1774 and Rousseau’s Confessions in 1782, Wordsworth would have been a mere 15-17 year old lad, William Blake published his Poetical Sketches in 1783, and Lord Byron, being born in 1788, wasn’t even alive at the time. This painting is a slight contrast to Gainsborough’s more Neoclassical-style paintings of the previous years. One could argue that he captured the sensibility of the time, or he simply indulged his love of painting countryside scenery.

For me, this painting evokes the mood of Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights. Elizabeth Ann Linley painted with hair untamed and eyes full of sorrow, reminds me of the ‘free-spirited and beautiful’* Catherine Earnshaw. In my imagination, that’s Catherine sitting on a stone, waiting for Heathcliff, and the wind is whispering her name throughout moors ‘Catherine, Catherine’…

Verses from Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem ‘Lake’, which remind me of this painting as well:

”(…) Eternity, naught gulfs: what do

You do with days of ours which you devour?

Speak! Shall you not bring back those things sublime?

Return the raptured hour?

 

O Lake, caves, silent cliffs and darkling wood,

Whom Time has spared or can restore to light,

Beautiful Nature, let there live at least

The memory of that night…

More portraits with a same mood:

1776-78. Lady Elizabeth Hamilton (1753–1797), Countess of Derby by George Romney

Lady Elizabeth Hamilton (1753–1797), Countess of Derby by George Romney, 1776-78

1777-78. Thomas Gainsborough - Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield

Thomas Gainsborough – Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield, 1777-78

1783. Thomas Gainsboroguh Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, 1783

George Romney, Mrc Crouch, 1793

George Romney, Portrait of Mrc Crouch, 1793

1795. Frankland Sisters by John Hoppner 1

John Hoppner, Frankland Sisters, 1795

Thomas Lawrence – ‘Always in Love and Always in Debt’

14 Apr

How strange that Thomas Lawrence’s romantic and dreamy paintings were on my mind yesterday, when in fact he was born on 13 April 1769. I thought to myself, this must be the voice of art telling me to write about Thomas Lawrence, and that’s exactly what I decided to do.

?????????????????????????1795. Portrait of Sally Siddons (Daughter of Sarah Siddons) by Thomas Lawrence

Thomas Lawrence belongs to ‘the golden age of British portrait painting’; the age of Gainsborough, Reynolds, Beechey and Romney. Although today his paintings may be regarded as too sentimental or too decorative, their romantic flamboyance was all the rage in Georgian London.

He was born in Bristol, the son of a tavern-keeper, and showed his artistic talents early on. His parents considered him a child prodigy and laid all their hopes in him. Fortunately, all their expectations came true. Lawrence’s success was rapid; one moment he was a ten year old boys making drawings and pastels at his father’s tavern, and the other he was a respectable young painter in London. He arrived in London sometime before his eighteenth birthday, in 1787, and settled himself near the studio of Joshua Reynolds who advised the handsome and lively young painter to study nature, and forget the Old masters.

Thomas’ ability to charm and seduce cleared his way to success. Polished manners and kind demeanor, along with obvious artistic skills and individualistic approach, made him popular among young Regency ladies who all wanted to be captured for eternity in Lawrence’s romantic and dazzling style. He happily plunged into the Regency world of aristocracy, fashion, theatre and art. Still, his painting style sometimes proved to be a tad too modern for the audience accustomed to more classical aesthetics. His free brushstrokes, thickly applied paint (especially when painting clothes) and strongly contrasted colours all differed him from the smoothness and feather-light touch of Reynolds or Gainsborough.

1790. Sir Thomas Lawrence - Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby1790. Sir Thomas Lawrence – Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby

As much as for his artistic talents, Lawrence was known for being ‘Always in love and always in debt’. He himself said –  ‘I have never been extravagant nor profligate in the use of money. Neither gaming, horses, curricles, expensive entertainments, nor secret sources of ruin from vulgar licentiousness have swept it from me’. Exactly what he spent his money on, and he had a great deal of it, remains a mystery. It is likely, however, that his generous nature compelled him to financially help his friends and relatives, and he did enjoy collecting works of old masters.

Thomas Lawrence led a life of romances, debts and art. He was a charming and flirtatious lad, and although he never married, his name was romantically linked to many beauties of the day. Two sisters, fragile and sickly ladies, Sally and Maria Siddons, the eldest daughters of the famous actress Sarah Siddons, caught his eye in the 1790s. He first fell in love with Sally, then transferred his affections to Maria, then broke with Maria and returned to Sally. But Maria died in 1798 and Sally promised her on her deathbed that she would not see Mr Lawrence again, and she kept her promise until her own death in 1803.

1793. Selina Peckwell, later Mrs. George Grote by Sir Thomas Lawrence1793. Selina Peckwell, later Mrs. George Grote by Sir Thomas Lawrence

There is a reason why these charmingly beautiful Lawrence’s portraits were on my mind: I’m re-reading my favourite novel by Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility. Since it is set in late 1790s, I can not help imagining Marianne dressed in one of those splendid yet simple white dresses. Thomas Lawrence is the only painter who could capture Marianne’s romantic idealism, vivaciousness and excessive sensibility. In my imagination Marianne would be portrayed with a book in her hand (Shakespeare’s sonnets of Cowper’s poems), with eyes full of ‘life, a spirit, an eagerness which could hardly be seen without delight.‘ May I add that Thomas Lawrence enjoyed reading Jane Austen’s works too, which I find rather strange.

Portrait of Sally Siddons, shown all the way up, is my favourite portrait by Thomas Lawrence. It appeals to me for many reasons. First of all; it portrays his love interest – Sally Siddons which gives it a level of emotional honesty. Secondly, her pose was always very captivating to me; she seems very thoughtful, dreamy and confident at the same time. Thirdly, her dress is painted so beautifully, those gathers captured so exuberantly, especially if you consider that white is the hardest colour to paint. Then there’s that dreamy atmosphere to all of Lawrence’s portraits, a remarkable theatrical sensibility, and a provocative touch. His sitters always seem caught in the moment.