'At the Age of two Years, to wch [sic] she is arriv'd this 17: Sept: 1766. She [Queeney] is strong enough to carry a Hound puppy two Months old quite across the Lawn at Streatham ... she repeats the Pater Noster, the three Christian Virtues & the Signs of the Zodiac ... [and] knows all the heathen Deities by their Attributes & counts 20 without missing one' (Hester Thrale, in The Children's Book, or rather Family Book, unpublished MS., 1766-1778, cited in Hyde, op. cit., p. 21).
Daughter of the celebrated diarist, writer and redoubtable socialite, Hester Thrale, and the wealthy London brewer Henry Thrale, Hester Maria's early precocity attracted the attention and admiration of Samuel Johnson, who was a key member of the dynamic literary and artistic circle that gravitated around the Thrales at Streatham Park. Painted in 1766 by Johan Zoffany (a close associate of another member of the Streatham Circle, David Garrick), this engaging and virtuoso portrait of 'Queeney', as she was affectionately nicknamed by Johnson, ranks with the most arresting of eighteenth-century portraits of children by Reynolds and Gainsborough.
Queeney's mother was a member of the powerful Salusbury family, one of the most illustrious Welsh land-owning dynasties of the Georgian era; her parents were both descended from Catrin of Berain, 'Mam Cymru' ('Mother of Wales'), and were thus connected with many of the principal families of North Wales. Hester's marriage to Henry Thrale in October 1763 was largely financially motivated, her father having gone bankrupt in an attempt to invest in Halifax, Canada. The son of a wealthy brewer, Henry Thrale had followed his father into the family business, and on the latter's death in 1758 inherited the Anchor Brewery in Southwark, a leading London brewery founded in 1616, which he set about expanding in competition with other leading brewers of the day, notably Samuel Whitbread, John Calvert and Benjamin Truman. The Thrales had a house at the brewery, a country house at Streatham Park, a hunting box (with a pack of hounds) near Croydon, and a further property in Brighton. Bound together in a marriage of convenience, the Thrales were described by a contemporary as 'an ill-assorted couple: she, highly intelligent, with literary ambitions, hard and masculine, yet sentimental; he, matter-of-fact and unemotional, though kindly, sensual and a glutton ... he could not be her hero, and she felt wasted on him' (Sir L. Namier and J. Brooke, History of Parliament: The Commons, London, 1964, p. 529).
The Thrales found common ground however, in their shared desire to immerse themselves in the company of the leading lights of the capital's intellectual and artistic community, foremost amongst whom was the literary giant, Samuel Johnson. The Thrales established a particularly close friendship with Johnson during an emotional breakdown that he suffered in 1766 (the year this portrait was painted). He lived with them for periods of time at Southwark and Streatham, and accompanied them on tours in England and Wales (1774), and France (1775). Johnson and Hester formed a particularly strong bond; he encouraged her literary talents, appraising her work and even collaborating with her, while she provided the care, affection and stability that he needed. In 1775, Johnson wrote two verses for Hester, the first in English in celebration of her thirty-fifth birthday, and the second in Latin.
With Johnson's help, Hester transformed her houses at Southwark and Streatham Place into lively literary salons. The magnet of Johnson's personality attracted Turk's Head members and other distinguished figures to Hester's tea urn and dining table. Membership of the Thrale coterie soon came to signal social and cultural arrival, and its status began to rival in celebrity that of the lively 'queen of the Blues', Elizabeth Montague. Henry Thrale commissioned Reynolds to paint portraits of the key members of this erudite group during the course of the 1770s to hang in the library at Streatham, 'the persons he most loved to contemplate, from amongst his friends and favourites' (Memoirs of Doctor Burney, d'Arblay, ed., London, 1832, II, p. 80). This included portraits of Thrale himself, Reynolds, Johnson (fig. 1), Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Arthur Murphy, Edmund Burke and Giuseppe Marc'Antonio Baretti (D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, London and New Haven, 2000, nos. 1749, 18, 1014, 706, 737, 1312, 285 and 107). The distinguished musicologist, Dr. Charles Burney (ibid., no. 290), was selected to fill the 'last chasm in the chain of Streatham worthies' in 1781, after which Thrale declared that Reynolds was 'much delighted in ... his Streatham gallery' (Memoirs of Doctor Burney, op. cit., p. 81). Most of these portraits were dispersed in the Streatham Park sale, held by Squibb on the premises, on 10 May 1816.
It was into this intellectual melting point that Queeney was born, on 17 September 1764, and very quickly began to thrive. The first of twelve children (two sons and ten daughters), only five of whom (all daughters) were to survive infancy, Queeney's birth is recalled in the pages of her mother's diary: 'My eldest Daughter's Birth was an Event of seemingly great Joy, for Mr Thrale had somehow a Notion we were to have no Children, & even doubted of my Pregnancy till it became quite past all Question' (April-May 1778, Thraliana, op. cit., p. 308). While Reynolds was clearly a dominant figure in the Streatham circle, it was Johan Zoffany who the Thrales chose to depict their treasured daughter in the spring of 1766. Having received key patronage and support from Garrick on his arrival in London in the early 1760s, Zoffany was now firmly established in the upper echelons of London society and at court. In commissioning a portrait of their daughter from Zoffany, the Thrales were following the example of the Secretary of State, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, who had commissioned a group portrait of his three sons and another of his three daughters, in circa 1763-1764 (London, Tate Britain); and of King George III himself, for whom Zoffany painted a group portrait of Queen Charlotte with her two eldest sons, George, Prince of Wales, and Frederick, Duke of York, in circa 1764-1765 (The Royal Collection). Zoffany had already painted a portrait of Hester's widowed mother, Mrs. Salusbury, in circa 1764 (Bowood House, Wiltshire), which Hester admired throughout her life: 'I value that small whole Length by Zoffany, beyond even the Heads painted by Sir Joshua -- not only on my Mother's account, but on Account of the Artist' (letter to Alexander Leak, 8 February 1813, The Piozzi Letters: Correspondence of Hester Lynch Piozzi, 1784-1821, E.A. and L.D. Bloom, eds., Newark, 1989-2002, V, p. 172). Hester remained a constant admirer of Zoffany's work throughout her life, singling out the Tribuna for praise in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1780.
Hester recorded Zoffany's reaction to her precocious daughter in the pages of her diary: 'she so astonished Zoffany to whom she sat for her picture that he told the King of her odd Performances' (April-May 1778, Thraliana, op. cit., p. 308, footnote 3). Zoffany captures her lively and independent character in this resulting portrait, in which Queeney looks directly at the viewer with a self-assurance and poise far beyond her years. The dark background and unusual oval format of this portrait (which Zoffany also used in a portrait of Eleanor Nightingale, as a child, circa 1766-1768; private collection) further intensify the focus of Queeney's gaze. Seated beside her basket-weave cradle, which she has clearly outgrown, her concentration is not even distracted by the keen attentions of Belle, the brown-and-white spaniel who is recorded as once mischievously having eaten Dr. Johnson's toast while he was talking to Hester (who also features in Zoffany's Portrait of Mrs. Salusbury). This portrait highlights Zoffany's consummate skill at rendering different textures, from the heavy Turkey rug, to the rich, satin drape over the cot, the stiff weave of the cradle and the spaniel's silky coat. The Thrales were evidently pleased with this portrait, since they commissioned Giuseppe Marchi, one of Reynolds' studio assistants, to produce a mezzotint engraving of it in circa 1768, which was then used to make cards to send to Queeney's friends (The Children's Book, cited in Hyde, op. cit, p. 29).
Hester started a journal entitled The Children's Book dedicated to recording the development of her daughter's 'Corporeal & Mental Powers', possibly on Johnson's suggestion. The first entry was penned on Queeney's second birthday, four months after this portrait was painted (see opening quote). Hester marvels at her daughter's growing intellectual brilliance in the ensuing pages and volumes: by two-and-a half, Queeney knew the compass 'as perfectly as any Mariner upon the Seas' and could trace the orbits and tell the 'arbitrary Marks of the planets as readily as Dr. Bradley [Astronomer Royal]', she also recognised the principal islands, seas, gulfs, and the straits of the world, and knew the capital cities of Europe, Persia and China (ibid., pp. 24-5). By the age of four, she had mastered Latin grammar to the end of the fifth declension (ibid., pp. 29-30), and by the age of six, Queeney's knowledge and ability had become a source of fascination amongst the Streatham coterie. As Hester reported on 17 September 1770, 'Her Powers of Conversation and copiousness of Language are surprising even to me who know her so well ... She read & persed to Dr. Goldsmith yesterday & he wonder'd at her Skill. - She has a little Compendium of Greek & Roman History in her Head; & Johnson says her Cadence, Variety & choice of Tones in Reading Verse are surpassed by nobody not even Garrick himself; it was Pope's Ode to Musick that she read to Johnson. Goldsmith heard her read the Messiah' (ibid., pp. 39-40). Her acceptance into the Streatham coterie was recognised officially by the addition of a double portrait of Hester and Queeney to the library at Streatham in 1781, which hung over the chimney (Mannings, op. cit., no. 1750; fig. 2).
Joseph Baretti, who was employed as Queeney's tutor 'in ordinary' between 1771 and 1776, taught her Spanish and Italian, after which Johnson featured increasingly as her mentor, commencing with Latin lessons in 1779. Johnson was extremely fond of all of the Thrale children, however he held a special affection and admiration for Queeney, which developed into a friendship that would eventually rival the close relationship that he held with her mother. Having constantly sought news of Queeney from Hester, Johnson began corresponding with her directly in 1771, and in 1781 he wrote to her that, 'The Friendship which has begun between us, may perhaps by its continuance give us opportunities of supplying the deficiencies of each other. I hope we shall never lose the kindness which has grown up between us' (19 April 1781, The Queeney Letters, Marquis of Landsdowne, ed., London, Toronto, Melbourne and Sydney, 1934, p. 25). Johnson's letters remained amongst Queeney's most prized possessions and she refused her mother access to them when Hester published her own correspondence with Johnson in 1787 (Thraliana, op. cit., p. 680, footnote 3).
While clearly a child prodigy, Queeney was not the easiest of characters, being extremely shy and somewhat emotionally detached. From a very young age, she seems to have prompted a mixture of admiration and frustration in her mother, who alternated between delight at her daughter's talents and dismay at her aloofness and lack of spontaneous affection. As young as four, Hester noted in The Children's Book that Queeney's 'Temper is not so good; reserved to all, insolent where She is free' (17 Dec 1768, Hyde, op. cit., p. 30). By the age of six Hester is more damning: 'I think a Heart void of all Affection for any Person in the World -- but Aversion enough to many', but she balances this remark with the observation that: 'her Discretion is beyond her Years, and she has a solidity of Judgement makes me amazed' (17 Sep 1770, ibid., p. 39). Despite her continuing misgivings about Queeney's character, Hester clearly respected her daughter and came to rely on her judgement; by the age of eight she commented that 'I really can consult her and often do -- she is so very rational' (21 March 1773, ibid., p. 61).
Queeney became a rich heiress on the death of her father in April 1781, her only surviving brother having died in 1776. The lack of a male heir forced the sale of the Brewery, which Johnson presided over as an executor. Queeney's already strained relationship with her mother was put under further pressure by Hester's decision to marry the Italian, Roman Catholic singer and music teacher, Gabriel Mario Piozzi, in July 1784. Queeney's sense of betrayal and abandonment can be gauged by an entry in her mother's diary: '[Queeney] said coldly that if I would abandon my Children, I must & that I turned on my Offspring to Chance for his Sake like Puppies in a Pond to swim or drown according as Providence pleased' (29 January 1783, Thraliana, op. cit., pp. 558-9). This match also caused a rift with Johnson and gained the disapproval of most of her fashionable and bluestocking friends, most notably Fanny Burney.
In 1808, at the age of forty-four, Queeney married the widowed Admiral George Keith Elphinstone (1746-1823). A consummate seaman and meticulous administrator, Elphinstone commanded all three main fleets, the Mediterranean (1799-1802), the North Sea (1803-1807) and the Channel (1812-1815), during the Napoleonic Wars. Stationed at Plymouth when Napoleon surrendered, Elphinstone was tasked with informing the fallen Emperor of his exile to St. Helena and overseeing the operation. In his skilful and diplomatic handling of matter, he received both the gratitude of the British government and the respect of Bonaparte. On her marriage, Queeney took up residence at Tulliallan, on the Firth of Forth, and Purbrook Park, near Portsmouth, and on 12 December 1809, aged forth-five, she gave birth to her only child, a daughter, Georgiana Augusta Henrietta, who married first the Hon. Augustus Villiers, second son of the 5th Earl of Jersey; and secondly Lord William Osborne, brother of 8th Duke of Leeds. Queeney became a Viscountess in 1814, on Elphinstone's elevation to the peerage as Viscount Keith. Her married sisters left no surviving descendants and her daughter Georgina was the last of the Thrale dynasty.