Hester Lynch Thrale, née Salusbury, was born in 1741 at Bodfel Hall, near Pwllheli, Caernarvonshire, the only child of Hester Maria, née Cotton (1707-1773), and her cousin John Salusbury (1707-1762) of Bachegraig, Flintshire. Of her childhood and parents, Hester wrote: 'I was their Joynt Play Thyng, & although Education was a Word then unknown, as applied to Females; They had taught me to read, & speak, & think, & translate from the French, till I was half a Prodigy' (Autobiography, 2.10). Indeed, she was to become one of the foremost bluestockings of her day.
No early portraits of Hester exist, but she claimed to have been the teenage model for Hogarth's painting The Lady's Last Stake, and would later be painted by Reynolds and in miniature by Cosway. The present portrait, thought to date to 1781, shows her presumably shortly after the death of her first husband Henry Thrale (1728-1781), in widow's weeds, at the age of forty.
Hester married the brewer Henry Thrale at the age of twenty-two (for a portrait of his father, Ralph Thrale, see lot 58). It was a loveless match, though financially necessary, and left her deeply embittered. Amongst Thrale's friends was the popular dramatist Arthur Murphy, through whom Hester became acquainted with Dr Samuel Johnson. Johnson admired her sparkling wit, and nurtured her desire to be seen as a serious poetess and writer. With Johnson she was soon translating Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy, and subsequently assisted him in the preparation of his Journey to the Western Islands.
Henry Thrale died in 1781 of a series of illnesses including venerial disease. It was not long before Hester found a love match in the form of the Italian musician Gabriel Mario Piozzi (1740-1809), whom she married in 1784, much to the chagrin of her family and even Johnson.
In 1820 Hester suffered a serious fall, '[a]lways a blue..., now a black and blue' (Autobiography, 2.462). She never fully recovered, dying in May 1821, and was buried beside Piozzi in the vault of Tremeirchion church in the Vale of Clwyd.