Art Detectives: Thomas Gainsborough’s red-headed beauty

In our latest book, which is based on our blog and titled All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century, one of the 25 true tales within tells of the life of the red-headed actress, Elizabeth Hartley. Elizabeth was a beauty, but not particularly vain; she disparagingly said of herself ‘Nay, my face may be well enough for shape, but sure ‘tis freckled as a toad’s belly’.

Elizabeth Hartley by Angelica Kauffman as Hermione in The Winter's Tale. Image via the Garrick Club Collection.
Elizabeth Hartley by Angelica Kauffman as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Image via the Garrick Club Collection.

Born Elizabeth White, and from Berrow in Somerset, Elizabeth had a sister, Mary, who also had strikingly red hair. Mary made a good marriage to the Reverend, later Sir Henry Bate Dudley, minister, playwright and newspaper editor, a ‘witty and profligate man’ who glorified in the nickname, the Fighting Parson.

Rev Henry Bate Dudley by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1780 (image sourced via Pinterest).
Rev Henry Bate Dudley by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1780 (image sourced via Pinterest).

While researching Elizabeth Hartley we came across a Thomas Gainsborough portrait held by the Ascott Estate (National Trust), painted in the late 1780s and depicting a woman with red hair. The identity of the subject is disputed: it is labelled as either Lady Mary Bruce, Duchess of Richmond or Elizabeth Hartley.

This is the painting.

A portrait of a red haired lady by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1786/1787 and in the collection at Ascott Estate. Labelled as either Lady Mary Bruce or Elizabeth Hartley, we believe it actually depicts Lady Mary Bate Dudley née White.
A portrait of a red haired lady by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1786/1787. Ascott, The Anthony de Rothschild Collection (National Trust)

We contacted the estate who gave us some information from their guidebook relating to the portrait.

John Hayes has called this ‘one of the most ravishing of Gainsborough’s late romantic portraits. . . . The enigmatic smile and slightly distant expression heighten the poetic mood of the canvas.’ The supposed sitter was the daughter and co-heir of Charles, 4th Earl of Elgin and 3rd Earl of Aylesbury by his third marriage, in 1739, to Caroline, daughter of the 4th Duke of Argyll. She married in 1757 Charles, 3rd Duke of Richmond and Lennox. There were no children of the marriage and the title devolved upon a nephew.

The picture has been called a ‘late London work’ by Waterhouse, and ascribed more precisely by Hayes to 1786–7, when Lady Mary would have been more than 45 years old. In an endeavour to resolve the discrepancy between the sitter’s apparent age and the evident date of the picture, it has been suggested that she is the wife, Lady Louisa Gordon Lennox, daughter of the 2nd Duke of Richmond, and not the sister-in-law of Thomas Conolly, to whom this picture is said to have belonged, but neither the dark-haired Hugh Douglas Hamilton pastel of her at Springhill, Co. Londonderry, nor the Romney of her at Goodwood, Sussex, bear this out. Yet nor can one detect any resemblance with the equally dark-haired sitter in the Chardinesque Reynolds of Mary, Duchess of Richmond, sewing that is likewise at Goodwood.

Two of the images mentioned of Mary, Duchess of Richmond are shown below and we think you’ll agree that they look nothing like the redhead in the Gainsborough held by the Ascott Estate.

Pastel of Lady Mary Bruce, Duchess of Richmond by Hugh Douglas Hamilton
Pastel of Lady Mary Bruce, Duchess of Richmond by Hugh Douglas Hamilton; via Wikimedia
Mary, Duchess of Richmond, sewing by Joshua Reynolds, 1767
Mary, Duchess of Richmond, sewing by Joshua Reynolds, 1767 (via Wikiart).

There appears to be no record as to why it is suggested that it may be a portrait of Elizabeth Hartley, other than the obvious red hair, but if it is not Elizabeth, we have another suggestion for the identity of the sitter in the Ascott portrait. We believe that she might be Elizabeth’s sister, Mary, Lady Bate Dudley. The Fighting Parson was a patron of Gainsborough, and a good friend to the artist. Thomas Gainsborough painted Henry Bate Dudley in 1780.

And, in 1787, he painted a glorious full-length portrait of Mary, Lady Bate Dudley. Did he also paint a second portrait around the same time? We think that the lady in the Ascott portrait bears a marked resemblance to Lady Bate Dudley. The two images below are from the known 1787 portrait of Mary, both unfortunately losing some of the impact of the true colour of the original which was recently exhibited at the Tate. The gallery label at the time said that:

Mary Bate-Dudley was married to Gainsborough’s friend and champion, Henry Bate-Dudley. She’s shown here in a romantic woodland setting, leaning on a classical pedestal and an urn. Her pose is languid yet statuesque and the gesture of her left hand suggests a refined sensibility. Unusually in Gainsborough’s art, Lady Bate-Dudley’s head is shown in profile. This is a dramatic ploy intended to elevate the painting beyond the everyday world of conventional portraiture to the realm of High Art.

Gallery label, February 2016

Lady Mary Bate Dudley by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787 (via Web Gallery of Art)
Lady Mary Bate Dudley by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787 (via Web Gallery of Art)
Detail from the full length portrait of Lady Mary Bate Dudley, 1787 by Thomas Gainsborough (private collection via Wikiart).
Detail from the full length portrait of Lady Mary Bate Dudley, 1787 by Thomas Gainsborough (private collection via Wikiart).

As an aside to this, Henry Bate Dudley did have a connection to Lady Mary Bruce, Duchess of Richmond as, in 1780, the Fighting Parson was sentenced to a year in prison for libelling her husband. And, you can read more about him and his sister-in-law, Elizabeth, in the pages of All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth-Century, available now in the UK in hardback and illustrated with over 100 colour images.

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