To mark International Women’s Day we have decided to celebrate the women in the Collection. From the patron, to the artist, to the painted face there can be little doubt that women played a significant part in shaping the Collection that exists today. This blog will go on to explore several key women who left their mark in Hertford House.
Firstly, the patrons! Across the centuries men and women commissioned art to delight, to impress and even to cement their own position. Of the latter surely no one in the Collection did that better than Madame de Pompadour. She used her patronage of François Boucher to commission paintings which proclaimed her position in Court. This was firstly as the King’s mistress, The Setting of the Sun is a vivid allegory of herself and the King and was a proclamation to her rivals, showing them exactly where the King’s heart lay.
She later used the same tactic to announce herself as the key advisor, with her delicate portrait now hanging in the Oval Drawing Room. Her feminine tastes in art are demonstrated in the Collection, particularly in her favoured Sèvre porcelain. This tray, decorated in what is now called ‘pompadour pink’ and covered with flowers, is the epitome of femininity.
Later her tastes did change from the exuberant Rococo to the monumental neo-classical but this is better shown under the patronage of a different woman, namely Marie-Antoinette.
Due, in part, to the numerous sales, held following the imprisonment and eventual execution of the ill-fated Queen, the Wallace Collection now owns many of her belongings. Indeed the Study is often dubbed the Marie-Antoinette room and claims to hold more objects owned by Marie-Antoinette than in the whole of France. Marie-Antoinette desired sumptuous art and furnishings which delighted her and used only the most skilful craftsmen of the day. She seemed to have largely favoured the neo-classical style but her tastes later softened towards flowers and pastorals. The large selection of furniture , produced over a small number of years, allows us to see this change and also highlights her reckless spending. Her secretaire by Jean-Henri Riesener was considered too neo-classical when it arrived and only survived for 3 years, but it does in a small way help to understand her unpopularity in France.
Reckless extravagance is not something you would associate with Elizabeth I, but her influence can be seen the Collection. Her father, Henry VIII, had established the armouries at Greenwich to compete with the brilliant armour being completed in Europe under Maximilian I. Elizabeth, though she had no use for armour herself, continued the armouries as a political tool, only granting the royal licenses needed to commission armour to her favourites. The armour of Sir Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, is one of the finest and best-preserved examples of the Greenwich school of armour-making known to exist. Another favourite, Lord Dudley, also commissioned two suits of armour from Greenwich, and his portrait hangs nearby in the Sixteenth-Century Gallery.
It is not often you come across a women’s name as the artist in such collections but Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun is arguably one of history’s most prolific portrait painters. A close friend and painter for Marie-Antoinette, she was popular for her ability to capture spontaneous attitude expression and her use of brilliant colours. Following the revolution Vigée Le Brun fled from France and lived briefly near Hertford House, even becoming a regular at parties, ‘Lady Hertford, who was a very beautiful woman… (she) gave superb routs’. When Le Brun was allowed to return to France she was able to help the recently arrived 3rd Marquess acquire paintings. The 4th Marquess was clearly an admirer of Vigée Le Brun’s work as he bought Madame Perregaux in 1862 along with a portrait of the young comte d’Espagnac. He even purchased a miniature copy by Jacques Thouron of Vigée Le Brun’s self-portrait in a straw hat.
Moving into the nineteenth century, one of leading French animal painters was Rosa Bonheur. Her paintings were much sough over for their perfect rendering of animals, fitting into the realism trend at the time. Though many considered her eccentric with her fondness for wearing male attire and her work in the early feminist movement, alongside George Sand and Sarah Bernhardt, this did not stop her considerable success. Her works enjoyed much popularity over the Channel and the 4th Marquess of Hertford collected four of her works, including Brizo, A Shepherd’s Dog and Sheep in the Highlands, 1857.
Finally and arguably where women are most notable in the Collection, is as the subject. We start off with a rather odd choice, Venus. She appears in all mediums of art in the Collection, from the obvious Boucher paintings, to snuff boxes, sculpture, cabinets and she even features on clocks. For artists she is a brilliant motif for love, fertility and erotica and the various myths associated with her is a goldmine of material for any artist.
From myths to the stage, how could we not mention one of our most famous Gainsborough paintings, Mrs Robinson (Perdita), so named after her most famous role. She caught the young Prince of Wales’ eye during her performance and became his first mistress. The liaison, however, lasted only a year, but eventually, following a financial settlement, relations between the former lovers became cordial and the Prince commissioned the present portrait. Gainsborough takes care in the portrait to show off Perdita’s beauty, while also showing her loyalty to the King, through the motif of the faithful dog, and finally her hurt at the ‘Royal abandonment’, she appears as a fragile figure against the cold autumnal backdrop. The picture came to the Collection as a gift from the Prince to the second Marquess of Hertford in 1818, following a long relationship between the Prince and Marchioness Isabelle, he took to visiting her on an almost daily basis. Robinson herself remained a controversial but high profile figure throughout her life and turned to writing poetry, novels and even early feminist works.
Another famous figure of the day was Margaret, Countess of Blessington. From rags in Ireland to riches in London, she lived a stone’s throw from the Wallace Collection for several years, attending parties and soirées. Her portrait by Thomas Lawrence, now hanging in the Front State Room, was painted when she became Countess and shows off her renowned beauty. Following its exhibition the painting ‘set London raving’, according to her good friend Lord Byron, and consequently made Lawrence’s reputation. It was bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, presumably for personal reasons. He had attended the famous literary salons held by Lady Blessington and Alfred, comte d’Orsay, her constant companion, where he supposedly met the future Emperor Napoleon III. Lady Blessington, however, saw a reversal of her fortunes and was forced to flee London to escape her creditors. She supplemented her small income with her writing until she died in Paris at the age of 59.
Whether as the muse, artist or customer the Wallace Collection would not have been the same without these women. If you have enjoyed this blog why not join us for a special tour by Diane Hurst for International Women’s Day at 11.30am on Saturday 8 March.