Materials: Oil on canvas
Measurements: 60.7 x 46.5 cm
Inv. nos P31 and P33
Frances (1751–1820) and Elizabeth (1754–1825) were the daughters of Lady Isabella Fitzroy (1726–1782) and the 1st Marquess of Hertford (1718–1794), an influential courtier to George III (1738–1820), who acquired a number of artworks now in the Wallace Collection. Elizabeth remained unmarried, while Frances married the Earl of Lincoln (1750–1778), a son of the 2nd Duke of Newcastle (1720–1794), with whom she had two children before Lincoln’s premature death at the age of 28.
The 1st Marquess of Hertford was an important patron of Reynolds (ordering his own portrait with the artist in 1785), and in 1781 he commissioned the artist to paint Elizabeth and Frances (as well as four other of his children). After multiple sittings with Reynolds, the portraits were completed in 1784, when Hertford paid the artist £110 for his work.
Reynolds has represented the sisters as glamourous society figures. They wear fashionable tousled wigs with long, shoulder-length curls. Technical analysis has revealed that these wigs were originally higher and flatter than they appear now, suggesting they were altered to keep up to date with passing trends.
Their elegantly frilled dresses have been given a translucent quality through layering paint of different consistencies. It appears Reynolds painted the dresses quickly, with a loose handling and use of a technique where layers of wet paint are applied on top of each other. Looking closer, some strokes of paint have even started to run before drying. X-rays show some changes were made to Elizabeth’s dress – it was originally much simpler and looser in design. Reynolds, however, ultimately decided to make the dress a more fitted design and to add a sash.
The portraits of the sisters were conceived as pendants, which would have been considered an unusual pairing in 18th-century British art, even more so with such a distinct visual connection between the sitters. Viewed side on, Elizabeth seems to gaze with familial concern at Frances, who casts her eyes downwards, with her right hand to her face, presumably while in deep contemplation following the untimely loss of her husband.
Frances’s pose is one not typically found in the work of Thomas Hudson (1701–1779), who was Reynolds’s teacher, or his contemporaries. It is possible Reynolds drew inspiration for it from Italian old master paintings, where women are frequently painted in such compositions and are associated with thoughtfulness and melancholy. It, therefore, suitably conveyed Frances’s mourning, while also conforming with 18th-century ideas about female sensibility, which looked to celebrate women’s perceived sensitivity and tenderness of heart.
The portraits, given their dating and unique character, were likely commissioned by the 1st Marquess of Hertford to hang alongside other historic family portraits in the Red Saloon of his country seat, Ragley Hall, which he had redecorated in 1780.
These portraits were, in the 19th century, considered to be some of the greatest works of art in the collection of the Seymour-Conway family. After being commissioned by the 1st Marquess of Hertford, they descended through the family, appearing at Hertford House by 1834. They were transferred to the Wallace Collection in 1897 on the death of Sir Richard Wallace’s (1818–1890) widow, Lady Wallace (1819–1897).
Text adapted from Duperron, N., and L. Davis, 'Lady Elizabeth Seymour-Conway and Frances, Countess of Lincoln', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, nos 4–5.