A closer look at Thomas Gainsborough’s full-length portrait of Grace Dalrymple Elliott

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Infamous-Mistress-Celebrated-Dalrymple-Elliott/dp/1473844835

Our biography of the eighteenth-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott, which tells her story more completely than ever before, shedding light on her siblings and maternal family who were central to her experiences, is out this month in the UK in hardback. Also containing many rarely seen images relating to Grace and her family, An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott is available from Pen and Sword Books and all good bookshops. It you are in America, it can be pre-ordered now and will be released there in Spring 2016.

 

Today we are going to have a closer look at a fabulous portrait of Grace, who had her likeness painted twice by Thomas Gainsborough. The first was a full-length, probably commissioned by her lover the Earl of Cholmondeley in 1777 and which hung in his London mansion at Piccadilly. When the portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in Pall Mall during 1778 the General Evening Post newspaper called it a ‘striking and beautiful likeness’ of Grace, quoting some lines from The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope.

If to her share some female errors fall,

Look on her face, and you’ll forget them all.

Sadly for Grace, the picture proved to have a longer life in the earl’s household than she did; when he refused to marry the divorced Mrs Elliott she upped sticks for France and the Anglophile duc d’Orléans. Reputedly, the portrait was viewed, a few years later, by Cholmondeley’s boon companion, George, Prince of Wales, and he admired both the painting and its subject so much that Cholmondeley was despatched across the Channel to fetch Grace back home from the arms of her French duc and to deliver her into those of a British prince. The portrait is now held in New York, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Over the years the portrait’s condition meant that certain details had been lost, but these can be seen on an engraving made of it in 1779 by John Dean (or Deane, c.1754-1798, draughtsman and engraver (mezzotint)). On his engraving can be seen a flagstone floor and a burst of light coming over the trees in the background. During treatment of Gainsborough’s portrait of Grace, dark paint was visible under the sky suggesting that the picture may originally have been intended to be much narrower, possibly without the landscape in the background.

The left hand of the 1779 engraving and Gainsborough's portrait, side-by-side.
The left hand of the 1779 engraving and Gainsborough’s portrait, side-by-side.

An additional revelation also came about during the Met’s treatment of the portrait – the presence of a small dog which was once in the lower right hand corner was also revealed.[i]

Bottom right hand corner of the Gainsborough portrait - can you see an impression of a dog?
Bottom right hand corner of the Gainsborough portrait – can you see an impression of a dog?

And here is the 1779 John Dean engraving of ‘Mrs Elliot’ courtesy of the Yale Centre for British Art.

John Dean, 1754–1798, British, Mrs. Elliot, 1779, Mezzotint, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
John Dean, 1754–1798, British, Mrs. Elliot, 1779, Mezzotint, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

Notes:

[i] British Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575-1875, by Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Katharine Baetjer, 2009.

Divorced wife, infamous mistress, prisoner during the French Revolution and the reputed mother of the Prince of Wales’ child, notorious courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott lived an amazing life in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London and Paris. Strikingly tall and beautiful, later lampooned as ‘Dally the Tall’ in newspaper gossip columns, she left her Scottish roots and convent education behind, to re-invent herself in a ‘marriage a-la-mode’, but before she was even legally an adult she was cast off and forced to survive on just her beauty and wits. The authors of this engaging and, at times, scandalous book intersperse the story of Grace’s tumultuous life with anecdotes of her fascinating family, from those who knew Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and who helped to abolish slavery, to those who were, like Grace, mistresses of great men. Whilst this book is the most definitive biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott ever written, it is much more than that; it is Grace’s family history which traces her ancestors from their origin in the Scottish borders, to their move south to London. It follows them to France, America, India, Africa and elsewhere, offering a broad insight into the social history of the Georgian era, comprising the ups and downs, the highs and lows of life at that time. This is the remarkable and detailed story of Grace set, for the first time, in the context of her wider family and told more completely than ever before.

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One thought on “A closer look at Thomas Gainsborough’s full-length portrait of Grace Dalrymple Elliott

  1. This is one of my favourite portraits by Gainsborough, largely because she has such a serene expression, and shows that someone with a rather prominent nose can still be a beauty. the character in the face is what is so electrifying. I always feel I want to invite her to take tea and have a good chat. She looks a very sympathetic person!

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