Gainsborough's Mrs. William Villebois, one of the artist's most ethereal female portraits, is among the finest of his full-lengths to remain in private hands. Painted in London in the mid-1770s, it has twice been sold privately since it was painted and has never previously appeared at auction.
MRS. WILLIAM VILLEBOIS AND THE TRUMAN FAMILY
Frances Villebois (1726-1801), the daughter of Henry Read (circa 1722-1786) of Crowood, in Wiltshire, and his wife Frances Truman (1726-1801), was the granddaughter of the celebrated brewer Sir Benjamin Truman (1711-1780). Members of the Truman family are recorded as having been brewers in the City of London since as early as the late 14th century and the company of 'Truman and Sons' is thought to have been formally set up circa 1666 by Joseph Truman who is the first Truman known to have brewed in Brick Lane, which was to remain the heart of the family's operations. Mrs. Villebois's maternal grandfather, who had inherited a minority stake in the family business from his father, was one of the most astute businessmen of his generation and, over a lifetime devoted to the brewery, transformed it into one of the three largest producers of beer in England, becoming its sole shareholder. The transformation of the company's fortunes under his leadership was closely linked to the making of 'London porter', a black stout brewed from dark brown malt, heavily hopped, which was the first beer which could be brewed in industrial quantities without deteriorating. By the mid-1760s Truman's Black Eagle Brewery on Brick Lane had developed into one of the largest industrial enterprises in the country and the company ranked third among the great London porter brewers, producing some sixty thousand barrels of porter every year, only fractionally behind the levels brewed by the company's great rivals John Calvert and Samuel Whitbread. In recognition of this achievement, and the considerable contribution that he had made to the country's wartime efforts as a substantial subscriber to public loans, he was knighted by King George III in 1761.
Truman used his enormous wealth to acquire a country estate, Popes, in Hertingfordbury, Hertfordshire, and also built himself a substantial house in the City of London in Brick Lane, close to the Brewery in the 1740s. Financial success did not however distract him from the business, which remained the central focus of his life, and securing the long-term survival of his business in his family's hands was to be a considerable preoccupation of his latter years.
SIR BENJAMIN TRUMAN'S PATRONAGE OF GAINSBOROUGH
This portrait is one of three remarkable full-lengths that Sir Benjamin Truman commissioned from Gainsborough in the 1770s. Truman's first commission was for the imposing portrait of himself painted in circa 1775 (London, Tate Britain), which is one of the artist's most sympathetic portraits. In it Gainsborough shows the patriach of the family standing proudly in a landscape with his country house in the distance, and conveys the essence of Truman's character and humanity. Truman was evidently pleased with the result, for commissions for this portrait and that of Mrs. Villebois's younger sister, Henrietta Read, later Mrs. John Meares (San Marino, Huntington Art Gallery) were to follow not long afterwards. The commission of these portraits, which were to hang at Popes, can perhaps best be understood in the context of his preoccupation with the survival of his family's connection with the business to which he had devoted so much of his life. With the death of his wife and only son James in 1766, Truman's hope of perpetuating his family's brewing dynasty rested on the male children that might be born to his three granddaughters, Frances, Henrietta and Charlotte, his grandsons Henry and William having shown neither the appetite nor the aptitude to take the business on. Frances, the eldest, had married William Villebois, her French dancing master, in 1766, and in 1773 gave birth to Sir Benjamin's first great-grandson John Truman Villebois, followed by a second, Henry Villebois, in 1777. It was not long after the time of the birth of his first great-grandson that Sir Benjamin Truman sat for his own portrait and that of Mrs. Villebois seems to have been commissioned at about the same time. In a letter of 22 September 1777 to his sister Mary Gibbon, Gainsborough mentioned that he was at work on a full-length portrait of 'Miss Read, Sir Benjamin Truman's grandaughter', who 'came out of Wiltshire on purpose to sit'. This letter has in the past been taken to refer to his portrait of Mrs. Villebois, but as Asleson and Bennet (op. cit.) observe, it seems more likely (as Frances Villebois, née Read, had by that time been married for over ten years) to refer to the portrait of her younger unmarried sister Henrietta Read, later Mrs. Meares. As Asleson and Bennet also point out, the fact that Truman's third granddaughter, Charlotte (d. 1803), who later married Sir Nelson Rycroft, 2nd Bt., in 1791, was not painted by Gainsborough suggests that she was still a child in the later 1770s (op. cit., p. 150, note 6). The overarching dynastic logic of these commissions seems clear from the detailed attention that they received in Truman's will, in which he specified that all his pictures at Popes should be removed on his death and hung instead in his house in Brick Lane, where they were 'to remain so long as any of my family have a connection or concern in the Trade now carrying on there by me' (Trumans: The Brewers, op. cit., p. 16). At his death Truman left his entire estate, valued at the then colossal sum of £180,000 (the majority of which was accounted for by his shares in the business) to Frances's sons, John Truman Villebois (1773-1837) and Henry Truman Villebois (1777-1847), tied up in a carefully conceived trust which kept the daily management of the business in the hands of his trusted Head Clerk James Grant (rather than his granddaughter's husband), whose 'honesty and sobriety' and 'steadiness in business' he clearly admired, until his great-grandchildren should attain the appropriate age to take charge. His will also provided that his house in Brick Lane which he had 'lately greatly altered and improved' be kept by a housekeeper until either of his great-grandsons 'designed to be entitled to my trade' attained the age of twenty-one. In the meantime it was to be lived in rent free by Mrs. Villebois and her husband. The family's patronage of Gainsborough was to continue after Sir Benjamin's death, for Mrs. Villebois and her husband commissioned a double portrait of their children, John and Henry, on whom their great-grandfather had pinned his dynastic ambitions, in circa 1783 (Private Collection). .
THE EVOLUTION OF GAINSBOROUGH'S PORTRAITURE IN BATH AND LONDON
Gainsborough first visited Bath in 1758 and after settling his affairs in Ipswich returned to the city the following year, where he settled for the next fifteen years, remaining there until 1774 when he moved to London. In Bath his portraiture evolved rapidly in both sophistication and ambition, and from 1761 he felt confident enough to exhibit portraits of a full-length scale in London at the recently formed Society of Artists, where they could compete against and be compared with the work of his contemporaries, developing a perceived rivalry with Sir Joshua Reynolds. The extraordinary sequence of full-lengths that he was to exhibit at the Society of Artists in successive years after his debut, and later, from 1769, at the newly founded Royal Academy, which offered a more prestigious venue at which to advertise his talents, illustrated the tremendous progress that he had made and showed his complete mastery of portraiture on this scale. Independent in spirit, Gainsborough achieved an extraordinary synthesis in his full-lengths between his remarkable ability to capture a real likeness and an artistic vision that, while strongly influenced by the work of his great artistic predecessors of the 16th and 17th centuries, remained deeply personal and expressed itself in a language that was very much his own. His portraits represented the fusion between the informality and sensitivity apparent in his earliest portraits and the more formal elegance that he had absorbed through careful study of the Old Masters. This mastery is evident early in the 1760s in such timeless masterpieces as his portraits of William Poyntz (1762), Mrs. Portman and Mary, Viscountess Howe (circa 1763/4). His continued development can be charted in other consumate portraits from following years, such as those of the Earl of Bristol (1768), The Countess of Sefton (1769), Jonathan Buttal, 'The Blue Boy' (1770) and Lord Ligonier and Lady Ligonier (1771) among others. The rapid evolution of Gainsborough's portraiture in Bath was greatly facilitated by the relatively easy access that the town afforded him not only to abundant patronage but also to the works of the Old Masters that he revered. From there Gainsborough could access some of the great picture collections assembled in the West Country by such families as the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton, the Methuens at Corsham and the Earls of Radnor at Longford Castle, and he was able to study at first hand the work of some of greatest artistic geniuses of the 16th and 17th centuries. Gainsborough, unlike many of his contemporary artists, never travelled abroad, so the opportunity of such first-hand study was of critical importance. More than the work of perhaps any other artist it was the portraits of Sir Anthony van Dyck that were to have the greatest influence on his own development, and his portrait of Mrs. Villebois reflects this. Van Dyck's influence can be discerned in the refinement and elegance of the composition, the subtlety of the colours employed, the manner in which Mrs. Villebois is dressed and the bravura handling with which Gainsborough manages to convey every last shimmering detail of her sensational satin gown. Mrs. Villebois is shown as a paragon of contemporary fashion with elaborately dressed powdered hair worn high, surmounted by an ostrich feather, a fashion which reached its peak in the mid-1770s. The dress in which she is shown is loosely based on 17th century fashions that were then popular as masquerade dress. Gainsborough was also perhaps seeking to give a more timeless quality to the portrait, which might otherwise be too closely linked to the whims of fashion. The dress in the portrait is reminisent of that which Gainsborough had used in his Double portrait of the artist's daughters (Private Collection) and also to the dress in worn by Mrs. Dalyrymple Elliott (1778), while the way in which Mrs. Villebois is posed with her left hand outstretched through her scarf is very similar to his Mrs Robert Thistlethwayte (1778).
On the death of Sir Benjamin's great-grandson Henry Villebois (1777-1847), the latter's share of the partnership was inherited by his son Henry Villebois (1807-1886), who, like his father and uncle, was not directly involved in the management of the business. Gainsborough's portraits of the family had been exhibited in 1878 and 1885 and on the latter occasion Henry Villebois received a private offer for the portraits of Frances Villebois and her sister Henrietta from the collector Alfred de Rothschild and decided to sell, as a letter in the Truman company archives dated 8 February 1886 makes clear. By this time the drawing room of Sir Benjamin's Spitalfield's house had become the company's boardroom, but although the company's board of directors felt that the removal and sale of the pictures broke the spirit of Sir Benjamin Truman's will, they recognised that they were legally powerless to prevent the sale and acquiesced in their removal.
Alfred de Rothschild (1842-1914), a scion of the eponymous banking family, was not only one of the wealthiest men of his generation but also a formidable connoisseur and collector of art. His father Lionel de Rothschild, the head of the Rothschild bank in England, was a grandson of the banking dynasty's founder Mayer Amschel de Rothschild and the son of Nathan Mayer de Rothschild who had settled in England in 1798. The second of Lionel de Rothschild's three sons, Alfred studied at Cambridge, where he was a contemporary of Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), who was to remain a lifelong friend, and he joined the family bank soon after university, where he was a lifelong partner alongside his brothers. The scale of the family's financial success was reflected in an expanding array of houses in both London and the country, where the different branches of the family entertained, often on a lavish scale, and indulged in a passion for collecting works of art that runs in the family's blood. Alfred de Rothschild's grandfather, Nathan Mayer, had acquired Gunnersbury Park in the 1830s, the first of a series of country houses that members of the family purchased in the following years, which Alfred's father subsequently inherited. Nathan Mayer's four sons each acquired extensive estates close to each other in Buckinghamshire in the Vale of Aylesbury, where they could escape from the daily pressures of their business and hunt and entertain in a manner that was to help secure access to the inner sanctums of British society, yet conveniently close to the centre of their financial business in London. Within close proximity, the various branches of the family built houses that vied in magnificence with each other and with those built by their cousins on the continent. Mayer Amschel (1818-74) constructed perhaps the most remarkable at Mentmore, on the estate that had been acquired from the Harcourt family in the 1850s, while his elder brothers Lionel and Anthony built sumptuous mansions at Aston Clinton and Tring. This set a pattern that continued into the next generation with Alfred de Rothschild at Halton, his brother Leopold at Ascott, and his sister Evelina's husband Ferdinand de Rothschild (their cousin from the Austrian branch of the family), and his sister Alice at Waddesdon Manor and Eyethrope.
A passionate collector, Alfred de Rothschild's taste in pictures initially followed the pattern set by earlier generations of his family with an emphasis on English and French artists of the 17th and 18th centuries and Dutch cabinet pictures, but was to evolve to include works by Italian artists (which his family had traditionally avoided on account of the religious nature of their subject matter) as well as Spanish masters. His pictures were displayed both at his London house in Seamore Place and later at Halton, where his decision to build a new house seems to have been partly conditioned by a desire to provide a suitable setting for his expanding collection. Pictures were only one facet of a collection which also included exceptional French furniture and clocks, porcelain and tapestries. Lady Dorothy Nevill thought him the 'finest amateur judge in England of Eighteenth- Century French Art'. He was also more widely involved in the art world in England as a Trustee of the National Gallery and a founder Trustee of the Wallace Collection, to both of which he was also an important benefactor.
The estate and original house at Halton had been acquired by Alfred's father Lionel from the Dashwood family in 1853. Alfred demolished the existing house, and between 1880 and 1883 built a palatial new house on the site in the French style. Gainsborough's portrait of Mrs. Villebois, which he hung there prominently in the North or Lady's Drawing Room, was one of several examples of the British school in his collection. He owned four other full-lengths by Gainsborough, that of Mrs Villebois's sister Mrs. Meares and Mrs. Beaufroy (both Huntington Art Gallery) and the portrait of Mrs. Lowndes (Lisbon, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian). The artist's celebrated Bath period portrait of Ann Ford, Mrs. Philip Thicknesse (Cincinnati Art Museum) was in the collection between 1884 and 1898, and these portraits were complimented by exceptional pictures by Sir Joshua Reynolds, such as Lady Bamfylde (Tate Britain), painted within a year of Mrs. Villebois, which also hung in the North Drawing Room.
Although his fondness for female company was well-known, Alfred de Rothschild never married, and after his death the picture, with much of his estate, was inherited by his illegitimate daughter, Almina Wombwell, Countess of Carnarvon, wife of Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, the celebrated Egyptologist. It was later acquired by the 1st Viscount Cowdray in 1919 for the then very substantial sum of £45,500, more than twice what he had paid for his Rembrandt, then identified as Admiral van Tromp (now in the Mauritshaus, The Hague).
We are grateful to Hugh Belsey, who is currently compiling a catalogue of Gainsborough's portraits for Yale University Press, for his assistance with this catalogue entry.