This portrait of Lady Forbes has not been publicly exhibited since 1859 and has never previously been offered at auction, having descended in the sitter's family to the present owners.
The eldest daughter of Sir James Hay M.D., Bt., of Haystoun, Peeblesshire, Elizabeth married the influential Edinburgh banker, Sir William Forbes, 6th Bt. of Monymusk (1739-1806), in 1770. Forbes was only four when he inherited the baronetcy, and later succeeded to the title and arms of Pitsligo in 1781, but declined the offer by Pitt of an Irish peerage in 1799 and also refused parliamentary seats. Articled to Coutts bank in Edinburgh at the age of fifteen, Forbes forged a career as one of the leading bankers of his age in Scotland, always paying tribute to the Coutts family as the architects of his success. The Coutts brothers' decision to move to London in the early 1760s gave Forbes the key opportunity to run the Edinburgh bank with James Hunter, later Sir James Hunter Blair, and in 1773 it was re-established as 'Sir William Forbes, James Hunter & Co.'. A man of considerable wealth, Forbes was also a great philanthropist, being actively engaged in many of the main charitable establishments in Edinburgh, including the Orphans', Maidens', Watson's and Gillespie's Hospitals, the Royal Infirmary, the 'lunatic asylum', the asylum for the blind and the Royal High School. Forbes was a close friend of both James Beattie and James Boswell in Edinburgh; the latter introduced him to Samuel Johnson in 1773. He became a member of Johnson's celebrated Literary Club in London, joining the esteemed company of Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith and Sir Joshua Reynolds, among others.
Forbes commissioned Reynolds to paint this arresting portrait of his wife, together with a portrait of himself, in circa 1775-6 (D. Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, New Haven and London, 2000, I, p. 199, no. 657; II, fig. 1182). Untraced since it was exhibited in 1859, this painting was not included in the catalogue raisonné of the artist's work published by David Mannings in 2000. However, Professor Mannings and Martin Postle have independently confirmed the attribution and dated this portrait to circa 1775-6, the former on the basis of photographs and the latter on first-hand inspection of the painting. Reynolds' Pocket Books for 1774-76 are lost and Reynolds had taken a payment of 70 guineas in the Ledger in May 1776 to refer probably to one three-quarter-length portrait of Sir William Forbes at 50 guineas and a replica at 20 guineas. It is possible however that this sum of 70 guineas referred to a portrait of Sir William and this portrait of Lady Forbes, each at 35 guineas, which Malcolm Cormack records as the standard rate for a so-called three-quarter-length (30 x 25 in.) at this date (M. Cormack, 'The Ledgers of Sir Joshua Reynolds', The Walpole Society, 1970, p. 105).
Reynolds executed some of his most celebrated portraits of women around this date, notably the full-lengths of Mrs. Richard Bennett Lloyd of circa 1775-6 (Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor), Lady Worsley of 1776 (Yorkshire, Harewood House) and Diana Sackville of 1777 (San Marino, California, Huntington Library, Art Collections and Garden, ibid., nos. 1137, 1935 and 1564 respectively). The more intimate, half-length format of this portrait and the sitter's informal pose, directly facing the viewer with her left arm resting on a ledge, compare closely with Reynolds' portraits of Miss Hickey of 1773 (New Haven, Yale Center for British Art), Miss Ridge of circa 1773-4 (Ohio, Cincinnati Art Museum) and Frances Pratt of 1777, albeit of three-quarter-length format (San Marino, Huntington; ibid., nos. 903, 1096 and 1479). Sir William Forbes sat for Reynolds for a second time in 1786 (ibid., no. 658), however on this occasion the companion portrait of his wife was painted by Romney (Sotheby's, London, 15 July 1992, lot 37, £198,000). In these later portraits, Sir William Forbes is again shown looking away, while Elizabeth, still a veritable beauty, engages with the viewer from under a magnificent, wide-brimmed hat.