Johann Zoffany by Jo Manning – Part Two

Queen Charlotte with her Children and Brothers, Zoffany 1773

Akin to the group paintings of the Sharps, Gores, Impeys, and Queen Charlotte’s family, is Zoffany’s cluttered-with-many-many-bodies iconic painting of the founding members of the Royal Academy – a painting faithfully reproduced whenever a piece about that august association is published – showing the two female founders, Mary Moser (a painter of exquisite still life, mostly flowers in vases) and Angelika Kauffmann (a renowned allegory painter whose work can be seen on ceilings at the Royal Academy building at Piccadilly Circus).They are on the wall, not 100% part of this mostly male group.

The Royal Academicians, circa 1771-1772

The painting brutally conveys the message that no women were allowed to pursue life studies, paintings using nude male models.While the men are intently engaged upon the muscular attributes of these young and muscular men, these women are framed in portraits on the wall, woefully gazing at each other, far removed from the action below.

I was quite familiar with the RA painting, as I have been doing research on 18th century female painters for some years, but I had not had the opportunity to see in full force the magnificence of his famous Tribuna Of The Uffizi, painted over the years 1772-78, when Zoffany resided in Italy.The Tribuna is an octagonal room in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence that was designed for the De Medicis in the late 1580s, and where the most important collections of that family were displayed. Zoffany here portrays the northeast section of the room, but varies their arrangement – artistic license – deliberately adding works that were not normally displayed there.

This is a fabulous work, simply fabulous! My initial assessment of Zoffany’s work was now seriously challenged as I gazed upon this wonder.So much is taking place: connoisseurs discussing a nude painting; young men on their Grand Tour gazing appreciatively and lustfully at the buttocks of a marble statue of Venus; a youth eying the sketch a gentleman is making of another marble statue; and, everywhere, exquisite renderings of great works of art.One could never tire of looking at so many minute details and musing upon the vignettes told so amusingly by the artist.

A Tribute to the Ufizzi – 1775

As Alastair Sooke described it in the Telegraph:

“[The exhibit includes] a staggering picture called The Tribuna of the Uffizi, which is often described as the best painting he ever made. Commissioned by Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, it took Zoffany the best part of the 1770s to complete. Amid a tumult of famous works inside the Tribuna room of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Grand Tourists can be seen chin-wagging. Zoffany includes more than 20 portraits of miscellaneous toffs surrounded by replicas of masterpieces by Holbein, Rubens, Raphael and others.
“An emblem of the curious, acquisitive spirit of the 18th century, it is spectacularly detailed. As its rhythms ripple across the retina, the eye’s muscles have to work overtime to keep up with the profusion of the artist’s vision. The unifying bright red of the background, though, deftly prevents the composition from swirling into chaos.

“Part of the fun comes from spotting works of art (a Raphael Madonna here, a nude by Titian there), almost in the manner of the Where’s Wally? children’s books. But as well as being learned, the painting is full of hearty innuendo, as Zoffany satirises the less-than-lofty aspirations of the English ‘milordi’ who set off on the Grand Tour in search of amatory, not artistic, conquests. A group of five men gaze adoringly at the sculpted bottom of the Medici Venus (one uses an eyeglass to get a really good look). Elsewhere, there are visual gags about buggery. The work is a wonderful reminder that the 18th century was as rowdy as it was refined. Perhaps this explains why Zoffany’s royal patron wasn’t enamoured with the finished piece, which was relegated to Kew Palace.”

Sooke’s well-written, almost poetic piece (“rhythms ripple across the retina”) segues into my what-I-didn’t-know-about-Johann-Zoffany story quite nicely.The buggery jokes… !The gentleman who has his hand on the canvas of the Venus of Urbino, by Titian, and seems to be pointing to the statue of the naked wrestlers, is one Thomas Patch, a scoundrel who’d been exiled from Rome for homosexuality/aka/buggery.(This depiction of Patch, in particular, seemed to have offended Queen Charlotte, the “royal patron”; she and her husband the King can be said to have had a limited sense of humor.)

So, then, Zoffany was not as boring as his court/society/family portraits might have indicated.Indeed, he was an urbane, witty man who was involved in his share of scandal…befitting the 18th century, that great age for scandal. As Sooke comments further, he “was an urbane chap with an eye for the ladies and an appetite for the finer things in life.”How true, how true, is this last comment!

For he was apparently also a bigamist, marrying his pregnant second wife – his very young mistress, who’d stowed aboard the ship carrying him to Rome – whilst still married to his first wife, who lived apart from him in Germany. This “marriage” was, obviously, illegal while his first wife was alive and they were not divorced.

This intrigued me greatly, so I looked into it further, consulting the excellent 2011 biography by Mary Webster (Yale University Press 2011).Zoffany had married Maria Juliana Antonetta Eiselein in Wurzberg, Germany, and had moved to London with him. Claiming homesickness, she left him early on, before 1771, but then returned briefly, only to leave him again around 1772, with the same complaint of missing her family and country.

In 1772, Zoffany took out what is called “letters of denization”, declaring he desired to switch his religious affiliation from Roman Catholic to Protestant. His biographer Mary Webster says, by way of explanation, that “German Protestants were allowed to divorce on grounds of incompatibility without incurring any social disgrace to either side.” (Rather enlightened, that!) So, was this an attempt to divorce Maria Juliana Antonetta?It might have been, but he never followed through with an action.(Webster further speculates that it might have upset his Roman Catholic family in southern Germany if he were actually to divorce his wife.) Instead, he sent her back home with an annuity; they remained married but never saw each other again. They’d had no children together.

 

With Mrs Zoffany gone, there were rumors that the artist had taken up with the wife of “an Israelite”, an unnamed Jewish woman. There was also talk that he roamed the London streets looking for young girls. This last bit of information comes from a well-connected German woman at the court of King George III named Mrs Charlotte Papendieck, who was to become a close friend and confidante of Zoffany’s next mistress – and, eventually, his wife – the teenager Mary Thomas.Mary – described as a very beautiful girl — was said in Mrs P’s memoirs to have told her the story of how she met Zoffany.
Mary Thomas, circa 1781, at the Ashmolean, Oxford, the artist’s second wife.

Though Mrs Papendieck’s memoirs were later disputed as to their veracity by the Zoffany’s children and grandchildren, what she has to say is fascinating. According to the 2011 book edited by Martin Postle:

“Mary Thomas, the daughter of a London glove maker, first met Zoffany sometime in the winter of 1771 or early the following year. [This would be about the time Maria Juliana Antonetta fled London for Germany the second time.] Mary’s own account of her life with Zoffany was recorded in the memoirs of her friend Charlotte Papiendieck. According to Mrs Papendieck, Mary had told her how Zoffany, who ‘in his leisure hours prowled around for victims of self-gratification’, had stalked her to her parents’ ‘humble dwelling’. Shortly afterwards, he left for Italy. On discovering that she was pregnant, Mary stowed away on the boat, making herself known to Zoffany during the voyage. On arrival in Italy, Zoffany apparently told Mary his German wife had died a few months earlier, and so ‘he married the object of his affection, who became a mother at 16’.”

“In Webster’s biography, there is some discussion as to whether she might have been 14 at the time she became pregnant. She could also have been closer to 17, but there is no definitive proof to corroborate this. She may indeed have become a mother at 16.He was 39, a good 20+ years older than she.(If she was really 14, it would have been a difference of 25 years in age!)

Mary Thomas gave birth to Zoffany’s first child we know of, a boy, in Italy.Zoffany may have gone through a form of marriage with her in Genoa that the girl thought was legal – she was very young and said to be rather naïve and shy – and he supposedly told her his wife had died – but the first Mrs Z was very much alive in 1772.(She died in Germany in 1805, 33 years later.) From 1772 onwards, however, Mary Thomas was to pass as Zoffany’s wife.

Tragedy struck when the baby was 16 months old and he fell from a go-cart down a steep set of stairs in Florence; the severe head injury was to kill him three weeks later. They went on to have four daughters together, two before he left for India in 1783 – without Mary – and two more daughters after he returned to her.

While in India, he was reputed to have taken up with an Indian woman and had at least one child, perhaps more.According to the Postle book, “Given his own libidinous predisposition, it was inevitable that he should have taken an Indian mistress, with whom he had several children, including a son.”Though it is hard to establish that he had “several children”, there seems to be agreement that he did have at least one son with his Indian mistress. This child was said to have been left in the household of a French nawab, Claude Martin, a man with whom Zoffany had been very friendly, but the little boy has been lost in the mists of time.Nothing more was ever heard of him again, nor of any other children he might have sired with this Indian woman.

Zoffany returned quite wealthy to England in 1788 after his sojourn in India and settled into that very nice home on Strand-on-the-Green. But, according to that old gossip and gadabout, diarist/letter-writer Horace Walpole, he came back “in more wealth than health”.India’s climate was harsh on Europeans, and diseases — before the advent of antibiotics – caused the deaths of many expatriates. But although he was said to be weakened in health, Zoffany lived for 22 more years. It was at 65 Strand-on-the-Green, that beautiful home on the river, where he died.

I’m standing by his tomb at the head of this piece, and here are more photographs from that churchyard many of you might have passed on the way to Kew Gardens:

St Anne’s, Kew, with the road to Kew Gardens, that great botanical showpiece, in the background. This inscription is of Mary Thomas, Zoffany’s second wife, who died in the great cholera outbreak in 1832, 22 years after the death of her husband…

 

This was one of his grandchildren…a baby girl…

I can’t identify the grandchild, nor the year of her death, nor whose daughter she was, which child of his four daughters’ children.(As I mentioned previously, there were four daughters of his marriage with Mary Thomas and a boy who died before the age of two years whose name I could not verify.)

The first two girls Zoffany had with Mary Thomas were Maria Theresa (1774), who was called Theresa, and Cecelia (1779); the last two were Claudina (1794) and Laura (1796). Their father left them ample dowries of £2,000 each and all made “good” marriages. To his wife Mary he left the house on Strand-on-the-Green and money for her upkeep.But there was a restriction on the house:she would lose it if she remarried.Though she received at least one known proposal – from the wealthy sculptor Joseph Nollekens — she never did remarry.

And what of that first wife moldering away in Germany?She passed away in January of 1805, so that bigamist Zoffany finally wed Mary Thomas at St Pancras Church on April 20th, four months after receiving word of his first wife’s death. Zoffany was 72; she was by then probably in her late 40s. They were to be legally wed only five years; the painter, who suffered from severe dementia in his last years of life, passed away in 1810.Mary Thomas outlived him by 22 years, dying in 1832 from the great cholera epidemic in London; sadly, their eldest daughter Theresa died within a few days of her mother from the same outbreak of disease.

Quite a life our peripatetic Johann Zoffany led…

One would hardly have known it, from his (mostly) sedate paintings.And he was a fun fellow, too.This painting shocked me, but only because it was the Zoffany I had not known, a man who hung condoms on his wall and dressed as a friar to take part in a bacchanalia one can only imagine!

He’s dressing up a Franciscan monk, according to the caption, preparing for a night out on the town.

I leave you with the bon vivant, in this later, rather happy, self-portrait, painted  when Zoffany was 43 years of age…and already, alas, losing his hair:

Still that skull, reminder of time running out…mortality, mortality…but that’s a smile on his face as he no doubt recalls his naughty sexual escapades well into his late middle age. He had a good life, methinks, despite his early loss of hair. Painted circa 1776…

Johann Zoffany by Guest Blogger Jo Manning

Originally published in 2012

Jo Manning at the tomb of Johann Zoffany and some of his family members, St Anne’s Church, Kew, on a very cold and very grey day at the end of May 2012. (I am wearing 5 layers of clothing.) Nearby is the tomb of Thomas Gainsborough who, born six years before Zoffany, predeceased him by twenty-two years. The tomb was restored in 2008.

I’d always considered Johann Zoffany to be . . . well, why not say it:  boring. Yes, boring. All those courtly paintings of royals and assorted aristocratic or rich mercantile families and groups. He had to be as ho-hum as his subjects, no? Well, how wrong can someone be? Terribly wrong, as I was to find out. The man had some interesting aspects to his persona, not all of them admirable, but…ho-hum, he was not! His life fit right into the scandal-ridden 18th century.

Self-portrait as David with the head of Goliath, 1756

                                             
Johann Zoffany was one of the first of the 18th century artists I came across in my researching of the London art scene a few decades ago.  He was competent enough, but his paintings seemed just that, competent, not too exciting.  A good man with the brush, for sure, but, really, his subjects? Let me take you with me on my journey to find who the man was behind the prolific and successful painter, the real Johann Zoffany, and this, only because the Royal Academy of Art has just had a major exhibit of sixty of his most important works. 

Zoffany’s former home at 65 Strand-on-the-Green, London, right on and across the river from Kew. A blue plaque is affixed between the 2nd and third windows, at the level above the front door. This is a lovely area, but one subject to major flooding when the river rises. Zoffany at one time owned several other houses on either side of Number 65…

Though among the founding members of the Royal Academy, the group organized in 1768 at the expressed wish of King George III, a group which very soon became the premier association of artists in Britain, Zoffany’s been generally overlooked among the artists in that august body. In the last three years, however, three major and all-encompassing books on him have been published, the last two in 2011.

Born in Germany, near Frankfurt, his original surname was spelled Zauffaly. Like his fellow academician John Hoppner (a portraitist also of German descent), he is not usually remembered in the pantheon of the best-known of the Georgian painters. You can be forgiven for not recognizing his name.

The sad fact for perfectly good and talent artists like Zoffany and Hoppner (and so many others during that time) was that the 18th century art world was dominated by the affable friend-to-all Sir Joshua Reynolds (first president of the Royal Academy, a favorite of royal and aristocratic society), and his contemporary and rival, Thomas Gainsborough. Not only were these two artists favored and favorites because of their talent, but because they gained fame by painting the day’s celebrities – the rich, the heroic, the notorious, the beautiful, and the very colorful – becoming household as well as society names.  Reynolds was, in addition, a workaholic with so many commissions he had to employ a stable of assistants to paint in background and even costume.  He and Gainsborough were the rock stars of the period, the go-to portraitists for high society, i.e., those aristocrats who comprised the ton.

It was difficult to compete in the same arena as those two artistic giants.  George Romney tried, and he did have his followers, but no one at that time was to equal the fame of Reynolds or Gainsborough, fame that endures to the present day. One critic opined that Zoffany was perhaps too German, too peripatetic, and too mercurial, to be taken seriously. Strange comments, but there might be something there. The German artists had their own clique within the RA clique, and Zoffany was definitely a wanderer who spent a lot of time away, from Germany to England, to Italy (a lot of time in Florence), to India, then back again to England. Some Georgian artists never left England, or, if they did go to Italy to study art, did so not more than once.  Zoffany was all over the place.  Peripatetic, indeed.

And the “mercurial” comment… I think it implies that there was more to him than one suspected.  Like quicksilver, he was hard to pin down, more in his personal life, perhaps, than in his painting life. That is, just when you thought you knew him…he was not what he seemed. This can confuse critics, as it certainly did me.

The Impey Family, India, circa 1783
Worse than the fate of the male artists who tried to compete were the many excellent female artists of the day, who fell through the proverbial cracks and are still little known – if not entirely unknown — to historians. There were thousands of good artists in Britain, a good number of whom had trained on the continent (Italy, in particular), but not all made money; some were quite destitute. Painters not that successful competing in London who were intent on increasing their fortunes went on to pursue commissions in India, working for the nabobs (also spelled nawabs), the British and European traders who’d become millionaires, and the Indian princely classes. Zoffany, in fact, lived in Lucknow, India, for about two years at the same time his friend and colleague the miniaturist Ozias Humphry went there, residing within a wide circle of European nawabs. In all, his stay in India totaled some five years.
Of the Impey family group portrait above, Judith Flanders commented in her recent Seven magazine review:

            “In India he shows us a world where the Victorian stratification of society into ‘European’ and ‘native’ remain in the future, and images such as The Impey Family show how Indian and British cultures intermixed, as the small Impey daughter, in Indian dress, dances barefoot to the accompaniment of Indian musicians, applauded by her watching father. In other paintings European sitters clutch hookahs, or weave Indian fabrics into their headdresses. It is always through these objects, through their possessions, that   Zoffany’s sitters speak, to their own world and to ours today.”

The Gore Family, circa 1775

If Zoffany is known at all, it is for paintings like this, of royals and wealthy families.  His canvases are filled with figures – and he is a nonpareil figurative painter – but gazing upon one too many of these works – dubbed conversazione, or “conversation pieces”, aka informal group portraits — can become yawn-inducing. Above are the six members of the amateur musical Gore family and the professional musician family, the Sharps (I swear, that is actually their surname, Sharp), below, set pieces showing both families’ most treasured possessions, their musical instruments.

The Sharp Family on the Thames, circa 1779-1781
Critics have dubbed Zoffany a master of this painting type, a genre that developed on the continent and came to Britain in the first decades of the 18th century.  These set “conversation pieces” have their admirers and detractors but no one can deny that these paintings are not technically well painted, the work of a master painter skilled in group portraiture. He also painted individual portraits of King George III and of Queen Charlotte (flattering both of them immensely), portraits which are not terribly memorable (see below), and tend towards (as one critic put it) the “homey”:

King George III could not be more relaxed in this portrait, legs splayed, arms relaxed. Queen Charlotte could have been flattered a bit more by the artist in her portrait; alas, she was not a handsome woman. Below is a delightful group portrait showing the queen with some of her children, her brothers, and a nursemaid hovering in the background, also tending to the “homey,” again, not terribly exciting, but competently executed.

Part Two Coming Soon!

J.M.W. TURNER AT 70 – AN OLD ARTIST WITH SOME NEW TRICKS

The Fighting Temeraire (1839)

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born on 23 April 1775 at 21 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, the son of William Turner (1745–1829), a barber and wig-maker, and his wife Mary, née Marshall (1739–1804).

Joseph Mallord William Turner Self-Portrait c.1799

From these humble beginnings, one of the greatest artists of the early nineteenth century rose to straddle the art world of Regency England like a Colossus. From his earliest watercolors and sketches to perhaps his most lauded painting, The Fighting Temeraire, his work was admired for his incredible use of color and technique to evoke the sense of movement and realism touched by the shimmer of magic few artists before him had managed.

View in the Avon Gorge 1791

At the age of fourteen he entered the Royal Academy. In addition to his studies, he worked with architects and architectural draughtsmen and even painted scenery for the London stage. The latter probably accounted for his lifelong love of opera and the theatre. By the time he was fifteen he was funding his education selling prints and watercolors of his work. The rest, as they say, is history. Again and again he stunned and delighted the artistic world and the Royal Academy with signature works of art. And with a rather rough, sometimes caustic personality.

Turner remained a Londoner and kept a Cockney accent all his life, avoiding the veneer of social polish acquired by many artists of the time as they climbed the professional ladder. It did not matter. His work was sought out by the highest ranks of the aristocracy and the wealthiest of the nouveau riche.

By the time he reached the age of 70 it was assumed his style was established and people knew exactly what to expect from his work. Until the Royal Academy exhibition of 1845 when two of the six canvases he exhibited stunned visitors and caused quite a stir in the art community. These two paintings, both titled Whalers, would join two more paintings, Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! and Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves in 1846 to form a quartet of paintings one might never attribute to Turner if one did not know they were indeed his work.

Whalers 1845

I had long been a fan of his work, what Regency romance writer isn’t, but I must confess I had neither seen nor heard of these late works. It took a trip to New York and at visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for me to come face to face with these amazing and forward thinking examples of Turner’s artistic talent and vision. Three of the four Whaling paintings are part of the Turner Bequest to the Tate in London. The third is part of the Wolfe Collection at the Met. Fortunately, during the time I was in New York the four paintings were reunited in an exhibit at the Met through a generous temporary loan by the Tate.

Whalers 1845

I cannot begin to explain the striking allure of these paintings simply walking into the same room with them evokes. The color palette and the motion in each of them immediately plunges the viewer into a world of feeling the ocean, the energy of the waves, the salty spray, the depth and breadth of the ships and the courage and smallness of the men. There is both mystery and clarity in each painting. The struggle between man and beast and the forces of nature come together on the canvas in a form never seen before this.

Whalers (Boiling Blubber) : Entangled in Flow Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves 1846

I sat for a long time before each of the paintings, studying them, and pondering the forward progression, the provocative and new ideas of an artist nearing the end of his life. Turner blazed across the artistic world of England, and as a result the world, from the humblest of beginnings to the pinnacle of artistic fame and never stopped learning, never stopped pushing the boundaries. This old artist taught the artistic world some new tricks that hinted at the world of Impressionism, but maintained always the mark of the brilliant young artist from the poor side of London.

 

Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! 1846

 

THE WELLINGTON CONNECTION – Count D’Orsay

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, by Alfred, Count D’Orsay

Whilst the Duke of Wellington approved of elegance and was himself known as “the Beau,” he felt obliged to advise his splendidly uniformed Grenadier Guards that their behavior was “not only ridiculous but unmilitary” when they rode into battle on a rainy day with their umbrellas raised. A dandy Wellington was not. Odd, then, that the picture of himself that Wellington liked most was done by one of the greatest dandies of his day – Count d’Orsay. d’Orsay painted the Duke in profile (above), in evening dress, and the Duke is said to have rather liked the picture, because it “made him look like a gentleman.”

Marguerite, Countess of Blessington

Count Albert Guillaume d’Orsay, the son of one of Napoleon’s generals, and descended by a morganatic marriage from the King of Wurttemburg, was himself a gentleman in every sense, and his courtesy was of the highest kind. At the balls given by his regiment, although he was more courted than any other officer, d’Orsay always sought out the plainest girls and showed them the most flattering attentions. During his first visit to London, Count d’Orsay was invited once or twice to receptions given by the Earl and Countess of Blessington, where he was well received. Before the story proceeds any further it is necessary to give an account of the Earl and of Lady Blessington, since both of their careers had been, to say the least, unusual.

Count d’Orsay, after a painting by Sir Francis Grant, P.R.A.

Lord Blessington was an Irish peer for whom an ancient title had been revived. He was remotely descended from the Stuarts of Scotland, and therefore had royal blood to boast of. He had been well educated, and in many ways was a man of pleasing manner. On the other hand, he had early inherited a very large property which yielded him an income of about thirty thousand pounds a year. He had estates in Ireland, and he owned nearly the whole of a fashionable street in London, along with the buildings erected upon it. Thrown together by the same society and so often in each other’s company, the Earl of Blessington became as devoted to D’Orsay as did his wife. The two urged the Count to secure a leave of absence and to accompany them to Italy. This he was easily persuaded to do; and the three passed weeks and months of a languorous and alluring intercourse among the lakes and the seductive influence of romantic Italy. Just what passed between Count d’Orsay and Marguerite Blessington at this time cannot be known, for the secret of it has perished with them; but it is certain that before very long they came to know that each was indispensable to the other.The situation was complicated by the Earl of Blessington, who, entirely unsuspicious, proposed that the Count should marry Lady Harriet Gardiner, his eldest legitimate daughter by his first wife. He pressed the match upon the embarrassed d’Orsay, and offered to settle the sum of forty thousand pounds upon the bride. The girl was less than fifteen years of age. She had no gifts either of beauty or of intelligence; and, in addition, d’Orsay was now deeply in love with her stepmother.

Count d’Orsay

But once again I digress. Suffice it to say that eventually Lady Blessington and the Count set up a home together, both in London, at Gore House, and in Paris, where Lady Blessington died. Upon her death, and before when they found themselves in straightened financial waters, the Count drew upon his artistic talents, both in painting and sculpture, in order to earn money. Whatever one thought about the Count personally, no one could deny his artistic talent. d’Orsay would go on to produce a painting of Gore House, of which I can find no image to use here. Instead, I give you a contemporary print of Gore House –

Gore House

And the description of d’Orsay’s painting, which illustrates the illustrious circles d’Orsay found himself within and also brings us back to the Duke of Wellington –

“A garden view of Gore House, the residence of the late Countess of Blessington, with Portraits of the Duke of Wellington, Lady Blessington, the Earl of Chesterfield, Sir Edwin Landseer, Count d’Orsay, the Marquis of Douro (2nd Duke of Wellington), Lord Brougham, the Misses Power, etc.  In the foreground, to the right, are the Duke of Wellington and the Countess of Blessington; in the centre, Sir Edwin Landseer seated, who is in the act of sketching a very fine cow, which is standing in front, with a calf by its side, while Count d’Orsay, with two favorite dogs, is seen on the right of the group, and the Earl of Chesterfield on the left; nearer the house, the two Misses Power (nieces of Lady Blessington) are reading a letter, a gentleman walking behind. Further to the left appear Lord Brougham, the Marquis of Douro, etc., seated under a tree in conversation.”

A LEGACY OF NEEDLEWORK- Part Three – Mary Linwood

Mary Linwood by Hoppner

Born in Birmingham, needlewoman Mary Linwood moved to Leicester with her family when she was nine, where her mother opened a private boarding school for young ladies in Belgrave Gate, and where Mary herself became a schoolmistress and later headmistress. Mary worked her first needlework picture at the age of 13 and went on to produce a collection of 64 pictures, specialising in full size copies of old master paintings that were worked worked using a combination of irregular and sloping stitches to more closely resemble paint.

By the age of 31, Mary had attracted the notice of many, including the royal family and in particular that of  especially Queen Charlotte, who had been such a champion of Mrs. Delany’s needlework. Mary moved to London and opened an exhibition of her work at The Panthenon, Oxford Street and in 1776 and 1778 her pictures were displayed at the exhibition of the Society of Artists. In 1785 she was summoned to court at Windsor by George III to show her work and according to the Morning Post there were ‘several pieces of needlework wrought in a style superior to anything of the kind yet attempted’ for which she received the Queen’s ‘highest encomiums.’ In the following year Mary sent examples of her work to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and was awarded a medal. Word of her work spread and in 1783 the Empress Catherine of Russia accepted an example of her work, whilst the King of Poland was also numbered amongst her supporters.

An Exhibition of Mary Linwood’s needlework at Savile House, Leicester Square, London
Mary’s 1798 “needle painting” Partridges, after the painting by Moses Haughton, Exhibited at the Hanover Square Rooms

In 1798 Mary began a series of exhibitions in n the Hanover Square Concert Rooms where she showed thirty nine copies of her work. In 1809, the collection moved into a permanent gallery at Savile House, Leicester Square, the former studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the property of the Earl of Aylesbury, where she held an exhibition of fifty-five ‘needle paintings.’  The exhibition remained opened until her death in 1845. She was a regular tourist attraction, mentioned in Curiosities of London and Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitors’ Guide to its Sights in which the writer observed: “This beautiful style of needlework is the invention of a Leicestershire lady, and consists of fifty nine of the finest pictures in the English and foreign schools of art, possessing all the correct drawing, just colouring and light and shade of the original pictures from which they are taken; in a word, Miss Linwood’s exhibition is one of the most beautiful the metropolis can boast and should unquestionably be witnessed, as it deserves to be, by every admirer of art.”

Mary’s exhibitions were the first to be lit by gas lighting to enable viewing late into the afternoon and she displayed each picture in a specially designed scene, her work being popular for nearly 50 years. Other exhibitions were held in Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin. The pictures appear to have been cleverly set for picturesque effect. The principal room, a fine gallery, was hung with scarlet cloth, trimmed with gold; and at the end was a throne and canopy of satin and silver. A long dark passage led to a prison cell, in which was Northcote’s Lady Jane Grey Visited by the Abbot and Keeper of the Tower at Night; the scenic illusion being complete. Next was a cottage, with casement and hatch-door, and within it Gainsborough’s Cottage Children, standing by the fire, with chimney-piece and furniture complete. Near to this was a den, with lionesses; and further on, through a cavern aperture was a brilliant sea-view and picturesque shore. The large picture by Carlo Dolci had appropriated to it an entire room. The large saloons of Savile House were well adapted for these exhibition purposes, by insuring distance and effect.

View of Mary Linwood’s Gallery, watercolour c. 1810. V&A

A mention in Chambers’ Book of Days tells us that: The pictures were executed with fine crewels, dyed under Miss Linwood’s own superintendence, and worked on a thick tammy woven expressly for her use: they were entirely drawn and embroidered by herself, no background or other important parts being put in by a less skilful hand—the only assistance she received, if such it may be called, was in the threading of her needles.

And from Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitor’s Guide to it Sights for 1844: Miss Linwood’s Exhibition of needlework is one of those which has not ceased to create an interest after its novelty had in a measure subsided, and is deserving, did the pages of this work permit, of a minute description. This beautiful style of picturesque needlework is the invention of a Leicestershire lady, and consists, at present of 59 copies of the finest pictures of the English and foreign schools of art, possessing all the correct drawing, just colouring, and light and shade, of the original pcitures from which they were taken; in a word, Miss Linwood’s exhibition is one of the most beautiful the metropolis can boast, and should unquestionably by witnessed, as it deserves to be, by every admirer of art.

Napoleon, embroidered in wool by Mary Linwood in 1825, from the collection  at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The technique of this portrait is known as needlepainting, a type of embroidery, in which oils or other paintings were faithfully copied, with the brush strokes rendered by stitches worked in crewel wool. In 1808 Talleyrand introduced Mary to Napoleon, whose portrait she embroidered twice. He wanted her to take her exhibition to Paris, but was prevented by the outbreak of war between the two countries. Mary received the Freedom of Paris from him in 1825 for the portrait above.

In Music and Friends: or, Pleasant Recollections of a Dilettante, author William Gardiner writes:

“I have understood that Miss Linwood’s mode is analogous to that of a painter; she first sketches the outline, then the parts in detail, and brings out the whole of the design by degrees. I once saw her at work, accoutred as she was with pincushions all round her, stuck with needles, threaded with worsted of every colour, and after having touched the picture with a needle, instead of a brush, she would recede five or six paces back to view the effect. Leicester was a convenient place for dyeing her worsteds; still there were many colours she could not obtain: but being a woman of great genius, she set to work and dyed them herself. Miss Linwood’s skill was well known before she opened her exhibition in London, and it was a common practice for amateurs, in passing through Leicester, to stop and solicit a sight of her extraordinary performances.”

In 1844, during her annual visit to her Exhibition in London, Mary was taken ill and conveyed in an invalid carriage to Leicester, where her health rallied for a time, but a severe attack of influenza terminated her life in her ninetieth year. Mary had continued to exhibit her work until her death. Her last work, completed when she was 75 years of age, was The Judgement of Cain, which had taken her a decade to complete.

Upon her death, Mary’s collection of 100 pictures was offered to the British Museum who could not accommodate it. The work was auctioned at Mr. Christie’s auction rooms at Saville House on 23 April 1846 with the exception of a few. In her will she left her embroidered picture after Salvator Mundi by the seventeenth century Carlo Dolci to Queen Victoria. Mary had previously been offered three thousand guineas for this piece by the Marquis of Exeter of Burleigh House which she had refused. The whole collection fetched a disappointing £300. Her work is now in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Leicester Museum and Kew Palace.  Mary Linwood was buried in St Margaret’s Church, Leicester.