Three great portraits of the actress, poet and celebrity Mary Robinson (1756/58?–1800) hang at the Wallace Collection. Her story is at once remarkable and tragic: a courageous and talented woman, a celebrity who suffered a series of unsuccessful love affairs and financial ruin, and ruthless press attention.
The following portraits follow the vicissitudes of her eventful life over the course of less than three years (August 1781 – January 1784).
Mary began her acting career after her disastrous marriage at age 17 to Thomas Robinson, whose reckless extravagance and gambling debts landed him in the debtors’ (King’s Bench) prison.
She and her infant daughter lived with him in prison, while she supported her family by publishing poetry; her work attracted the interest and patronage of the equally beautiful and glamorous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806), who gave her the introductions required to launch her career on the stage.
The greatest moment of Mary's acting career came on 3 December 1779, when she performed the lead role of Perdita, a princess disguised as a shepherdess, in the Royal Command Performance of David Garrick’s (1717–1779) adaptation of A Winter’s Tale.
The 17-year-old Prince of Wales (later George IV; 1762–1830), watching from the royal box, was captivated by her and began to write love letters to her, signed 'Florizel' (Perdita’s lover in Shakespeare’s play). He sent her his portrait miniature by Jeremiah Meyer (1735–1789), in which he enclosed a declaration of undying love on a piece of heart-shaped paper.
They began an affair in Spring 1780, which became increasingly public, and the subject of scurrilous and often deeply misogynistic satire. At the height of their affair, the prince promised Mary a bond of £20,000 on his coming of age (in 1783) but by December the affair was over, when the prince took up with Robinson’s former maid at the theatre, Elisabeth Armistead.
By the following summer, Mary found herself with no acting career (having given this up for the prince) and no income, angrily demanding that the prince honour his promises, and threatened to publish his love letters.
Despite this public humiliation and her dire financial situation, she launched her public comeback by means of three portraits for public exhibition.
First, from January to April and in July 1781, she sat for George Romney (1734–1802), wearing a demure quaker-style dress, holding a muff and in a fashionable white cap. By August, an engraving had been published after the image, which assured that it would be widely known.
When Mary sat for her full-length portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), commissioned by the prince, she was already negotiating a settlement with him. The prince agreed to pay Mrs Robinson £5,000 and promised her an annuity if she returned his love letters.
In a painting that has been described as more of a ‘pastoral’ than a portrait, Gainsborough depicted her in her role as Perdita, left behind by her royal lover. Her canine companion alludes to her fidelity and appears as 'natural' as the surrounding landscape.
She holds a portrait miniature that alludes to their stormy affair, probably the very one that she was sent by the enamoured prince. Mary holds the locket open, to reveal the inside of the case in which the prince’s heart-shaped note was once hidden.
Mary probably intended the image as a public statement about her new relationship with the prince. However, after the press preview Gainsborough withdrew it from the Royal Academy exhibition of 1782 perhaps in order to avoid embarrassing the prince.
Mary also sat at this time to her friend Joshua Reynolds, whose portrait was destined for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1782. Critics singled out this work as the best likeness of Mary and one of the favourites in the exhibition.
His model was a full-length portrait by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) of his second wife, Hélène Fourment (1614–1673), which he had seen at Houghton Hall (now in the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon): the sitter wears a dashing broad-brimmed felt hat with ostrich feathers, and a black and white silk costume, and, as in the Romney portrait, acknowledges the viewer with a direct, challenging gaze.
Just a month after the Royal Academy exhibition opened, Mary began an affair with Banastre Tarleton (1754–1833), a cavalry officer from a slave-trading family from Liverpool who had recently fought in the American War of Independence (and was notorious for the atrocities he committed there).
According to rumour, he seduced her as part of a bet with her former lover. Or he may also have met her at Reynolds’s studio, where they were sitting for their portraits at the same time.
Reynolds’s full-length portrait of Tarleton in battle can be seen at the National Gallery and was also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782. Gainsborough’s full-length portrait of Robinson’s former lover, the Prince of Wales, was also to be seen in another room of the exhibition (a portrait now at Waddesdon Manor).
In June 1783, Tarleton faced mounting gambling debts and suddenly decided to flee the country for France. He had agreed to meet Mary at the opera, and when he failed to make an appearance, she tried to pursue him by carriage to Dover. It is thought that she suffered a miscarriage on the way, which caused partial paralysis in her lower body, which forced her to withdraw from society and turn once more to her writing.
She and Reynolds together appear to have devised the composition of a portrait alluding to her changed life: her face turned in a ‘lost profile’ towards the horizon line of the channel and by extension, her absent, fugitive lover. Once again, as in Gainsborough’s portrait, Mary is portrayed as the abandoned lover, lost in contemplation of her destiny.
Mary and her portraits are intimately connected with the early history of the Wallace Collection during the Georgian era. The 2nd Marquess of Hertford (1743–1822) and his wife were her great supporters and subscribed to her volume of poetry, published in 1791.
Shortly before her death late in 1800, Mary described the marchioness as her ‘liberal patroness’. The 2nd Marquess of Hertford acquired Romney’s portrait of Mary from the artist’s sale in 1810. He also acquired Reynolds’s portrait of her, which was sold off by his descendant about 1894 and is now at Waddesdon Manor.
The Prince of Wales was rumoured to have had an affair with the 2nd Marquess of Hertford’s wife, whom he visited regularly at Manchester (now Hertford) House. In 1818, after his relationship with her (and the rest of the family) had cooled, he presented the 2nd Marquess with Gainsborough’s full-length portrait of his former mistress, Mary Robinson.