In his 1771 lecture to the Royal Academy, Reynolds declared: ‘It is the inferior style that marks the variety of stuffs’. In attempting to appeal to posterity with the grandeur of his ideas he asserted that a great painter must ‘never debase his conceptions with minute attention to the discriminations of drapery… with him, the clothing is neither woollen, nor linen, nor silk, satin, or velvet: it is drapery; it is nothing more’.
On reading this we might conclude that his work would be of little use to the dress historian, keen to chart fickle fashions, but we would be wrong. Reynolds’s portrait of Nelly O’Brien displays a strikingly fresh, forthright and detailed depiction of dress. This vivacious – if not entirely virtuous – female sitter was a friend of Reynolds. Perhaps this goes part of the way to explaining why he painted her in such a frank, full-frontal manner?
Reynolds reveals the creamy white flesh of a well-turned hand and forearm, emerging from the lacy ruffles at Nelly’s elbow. He also reveals a mastery of composition in his treatment of light and shade that calls attention to the face and figure, on which her fortunes were based.
She did not become rich as the mistress of the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke (who commissioned this painting), but she did have sufficient funds to make a will, mentioning diamonds and ‘ready money’. In it she also left her ‘best clothes’ to her mother, and her ‘old’ clothes to her servant (as was the custom). It is intriguing to wonder if the clothing depicted in Reynolds’s portrait is real, and her own.
The cap and hat that Nelly wears are not unlike those worn by Mrs Oswald in the contemporary painting by Johann Zoffany (1733–1810). Such hats served to protect the wearer’s complexion from the sun, and were lightweight and often covered with silk and garnished with ribbon. The best of these came from Livorno in Italy and were made of very fine straw, but willow chip hats were also imported from Holland and could be purchased in London.
Both Mrs Oswald and Nelly cover their shoulders with a black wrap, but in Reynolds’s painting there is the added subtlety of the see-through lace. The contrast between dark clothing and pale, bare flesh emphasises the suggestive shadows of her décolletage, or low-cut neckline.
As well as the interplay of light and shade that makes this composition so striking, there is a pleasing interaction between the textures of the textiles – the more substantial silk of the striped gown, and salmon-pink petticoat and the gauzy apron and sleeve ruffles. The quilted petticoat that Reynolds lavishes our attention upon seems very substantial, whereas the diaphanous draped apron worn over it does not.
Robust quilted petticoats gave shape and support to flimsy gowns, as well as warmth to the wearer. While the decorative surface is of silk, they were backed with linen and padded with wool, with all layers sewn through to produce the diamond pattern that we see here. They can frequently be seen in the mid-18th-century paintings of Arthur Devis (1712–1787) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), and trade cards tells us that they could be bought ready-made.
Letters, too, provide useful evidence, for example, we learn that a Mrs Purefoy’s son had to return hers to the tailor in 1739 as it was too heavy to wear. Nelly’s garment is lightweight enough to reveal her knee beneath it, with the embroidered silk apron creating a dynamic foil. We can almost hear the rustling of her silken layers in movement.
If Nelly’s portrait depicts realistic clothing, then it stands out at a time when Reynolds was experimenting with timeless ‘drapery’. When we learn that Reynolds produced two portraits of Nelly for her lover we can perhaps see why he took a more literal approach here – as a fashionable foil to the classicising look.
The second portrait exemplifies Reynolds’s imaginative ideas, and contemporary engravings exploited the erotic appeal of garments that clung to every contour. Nelly’s ‘sex appeal’ as a classy courtesan is emphasised in the jewellery, as well as naked Danaë on the plinth on which she rests. Note the provocative posture that emphasises her décolletage, and is evident in the cheaply produced papers that could be kept in a man’s pocket watch – for discreet and private contemplation.
The pace of fashion change in the 18th century was rapid. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, set the fashion for ostrich feather headdresses in 1774, and by 1775 Marie-Antoinette wrote that she had to adopt these or look out of place. The satirists of the 1770s had a field day with high hairstyles bearing feathered plumes.
The follies of such fashions are acknowledged in Reynolds’s advice to portrait painters in 1776. He warned against ‘the modern dress, the familiarity of which alone is sufficient to destroy all dignity’… Instead he advocated ‘the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity, [and] something of the modern for the sake of likeness’.
The portrait of Elizabeth Carnac exemplifies such theories and his so-called ‘Grand Style’. Despite attempts at a timeless white gown, the bunching at the hips echoes draped overskirt called the ‘polonaise’ – all the rage in 1775.
The modernity of the high hairstyle also means that this portrait must already have looked outmoded by the 1780s. How do Reynolds’s sitters appear to us today? Resplendent or ridiculous, real or ideal, they provide much for the dress historian to muse upon.
This article was written by Jacqui Ansell, Senior Lecturer at Christie's Education.