The information about the painting shown on the Frick Collection website provides a few clues about the provenance of the portrait, but we came across more which fills in some of the gaps.
The portraits life began its life when Grace Dalrymple Elliott and Mary Robinson aka Perdita, mistress to the Prince of Wales, sat at the same time to have their portraits painted by Thomas Gainsborough. The portrait of Grace had, according to the late British art historian Sir Oliver Millar, been commissioned by the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) for the sum of £31 10 shillings.
After completion, the portrait of Grace vanished for some considerable time and there is no further reference to it prior to Grace’s death in 1823, nor any mention of it being in the possession of either the Prince of Wales or Grace’s lover, the 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley. Research tells us, however, that it was included in several exhibitions including The British Institution 1860; International Exhibition 1862; Gainsborough Exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery 1884 and in 1894 at the Grafton Gallery.
At this time, it appeared in a brochure by Charles Fairfax Murray who catalogued all the paintings belonging to his Grace Duke of Portland, so we can only assume that it was loaned to the Grafton Gallery by the duke. We still have no idea exactly how it entered into his possession although Murray stated that:
The fine Gainsborough, Mrs Elliott, was no doubt, also purchased by the last Duke, possibly in France as the lady died at Ville D’Avray and the picture may have belonged to her at her death.
If that information is correct then the painting would appear to have been purchased by the 6th Duke of Portland, William Cavendish-Bentinck, but the most likely explanation is that it was inherited somehow by the family at the time of Grace’s death as the family also own other paintings connected to Grace.
The book Thomas Gainsborough by Arthur B Chamberlain published in 1906 contains a photograph of Mrs Elliott’s portrait, which was included with the permission of the Duke of Portland.
In 1909 a photograph of the portrait also appeared in The Masterpieces of Gainsborough, again, with the permission of the Duke of Portland, so we know that the portrait had remained under the ownership of the Portland estate for some considerable time.
It was then exhibited in February 1909, at the New Gallery, London as part of an exhibition entitled ‘Fair Women’. Then again in October 1927 in Ipswich as part of a celebration of the bicentenary of Gainsborough.
It was at the end of 1927 that the fun and games began when we came across letters and cables at the Getty Research Institute regarding the sale of the ‘head and shoulders’ portrait of Grace between Joseph Duveen & the Portland Estate, and they make for fascinating reading. Duveen being one of the most influential art dealers at that time.
It seems that Duveen approached the Duke of Portland and trustees wishing to purchase the portrait and he had a figure in mind in the region of £25,000 to £30,000 maximum that he was willing to pay for it.
The Duke, on the other hand, believed it to worth in excess of £50,000. Duveen described this price as ‘ridiculous’.
On the 6th December 1927 Duveen thought that an offer of around £40,000 might be closer to the mark to secure the painting, but as he was a skilled negotiator and felt that the Duke and the trustees needed to come down much closer to £30,000 before he would be interested in buying it.
Duveen said he’d seen the portrait at the Ipswich Exhibition and that it was a very beautiful and saleable one, but in spite of this, he was adamant that the £50,000 price was far too high.
This is where the really cryptic cable exchanges began on 17th December 1927 between Duveen and Herbert Silva White (fine art dealer, 175, Piccadilly, London) – instead of referring to the picture by name Duveen referred to it as the ‘landport topaz’. Duveen continued to confirm that the price too high for them and that it would be too high for other dealers and that
the sooner the Duke of Portland realized that the better.
Less than a week later White approached the Portland lawyers who said £40,000 was not enough for the painting and that Portland had been approached by others but was not keen to sell. A few days later White contacted Duveen saying that if the offer was below £40,000 the Duke would ‘be mad and refuse to sell’.
The Duke and the trustees dug their heels in at this point and refused to allow either White or Duveen access to view the portrait as they had requested, saying that they had seen it at the exhibition and that should be enough for them! The saga continued with the duke and trustees becoming more and more annoyed.
On the 30th January 1928 in a letter from White to Duveen he stated that the duke would not allow them to see the painting again under any circumstances, the duke understood how good the painting was and how much the public enjoyed seeing it at the exhibition and that it would stay on his wall until it was purchased! Nor would he allow a photograph of it to be taken. He said that a representation existed in the Ipswich catalogue and that really should be good enough for them. A minimum payment required of £40,000 was requested or the matter would be closed.
White said to Duveen that they were now several months on and no further forward in negotiations. White said that the duke had another extremely interested party and so it was time they made their decision. So, the battle continued.
One month later Duveen described the portrait as ‘marvellous‘, and that it would be a good purchase at between £25,000 & £28,000 but added that
we’re dealing with very difficult people and under 30k would be useless.
So White was instructed to offer £32,000. The Duke and trustees were still sticking to their guns – £40,000, so it was agreed that White should back off for now. A further two months passed.
These people will not budge from £40k and still refuse to let us see the picture.
Duveen then instructed White to insist that he must be allowed to see the portrait if he was expected to pay £40,000 for it. White decided that the best approach would be to arrange for Duveen to see the picture when Portland’s were not in residence and eventually, he managed to arrange a visit to Welbeck without the permission of the duke, who he knew was away, but he hadn’t bargained for the Duchess being there.
He described Welbeck as being
more difficult to get into than Buckingham Palace
but said that he’d learnt a few things about how to get in at a later date! Cryptic messages continued until 23rd August 1929 when a letter from Duveen refers to someone named Colnaghi who had offered £45,000 for the painting. Duveen still wanted to actually see the picture and apparently, Colnaghi might be able to arrange this.
On the 24th October 1929, the Duke stated that if the price was high enough he would sell, then a week later he had a change of mind and wouldn’t sell at any price as his financial situation had changed and he no longer needed to sell, but if he were to sell it would be for somewhere in excess of £50k.
Somehow Duveen eventually managed to view it; agreed it was lovely, but the agreement was that he could see that portrait and nothing else whilst there. On the 5th July 1930, a photograph of the portrait was sent to Duveen by the Duke of Portland. Less than a week later Duveen confirmed that he had purchased the portrait, but annoyingly, no mention as to how much had finally been settled on, which after so much hassle is immensely annoying.
Some six years later on the 19th February 1936, the Sassoon Exhibition opened; Mrs Elliot looked ‘marvellous‘ (Sir Phillip Sassoon, 45 Park Lane, London).
7 April 1936 – confirming a letter rec’d thanking them for loaning the Gainsborough to the Sassoon Exhibition, from Mrs Gubbay.
On 23 June 1938:
can you offer Oakes two Gainsborough portraits – Mrs Elliot, Mister Richard Paul Jodrell, MP?
This final telegram could possibly relate to Roscoe & Margaret Oakes, they had a connection to the Frick and were philanthropists and art collectors. On 28 June 1938, a shipment containing both paintings was sent on SS Aquitania.
So finally, we had the explanation as to how Grace found her way into Frick Collection, along with the portrait of Richard Paul Jodrell. After all of this ‘cloak and dagger’ saga, Joseph Duveen was to die just a year later.
You can discover more about Grace’s fascinating life, her family and her lovers in An Infamous Mistress.
Morning Herald of 25th, August 1781
Catalogue of pictures belonging to his Grace Duke of Portland (1894) by C Fairfax Murray
The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Feb 23, 1909
The Times (London, England), Friday, Sep 16, 1927
Files regarding works of art: Gainsborough, Mrs Eliott, ex-Duke of Portland, ca. 1927-1946 Getty Research Institute