Offered in our Old Masters sale in New York on 30 October, this affectionate portrait is the legacy the artist’s love for the child he welcomed into his home when she was just 13 years old, and nurtured until her marriage some 11 years
In 1770 Theophila Palmer and her elder sister moved into the London home of their uncle, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Theopilia, or ‘Offy’ as she was affectionately known, was 13 years old at the time, the second daughter of the artist’s sister, Mary, and her husband John Palmer, Attorney of Great Torrington in Devon.
Reynolds was, at the time, at the peak of his success: in 1768 he had become the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, and a year later had been knighted by King George III.
The artist’s early biographers, Charles Robert Leslie and Tom Taylor, noted that the stylish young Theophila quickly became a favourite of Reynolds. A letter to his niece dated 12 August, 1777, demonstrates the affection he felt for her: ‘I never told you how much I loved you, for fear that you should grow saucy upon it.’
According to their 1865 work, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘Theophila sat for a great many of his fancy subjects, more particularly for those in which girlish archness is the dominant expression.’
In this portrait of Theophila, painted in around 1771 and offered in New York on 30 October, Reynolds has depicted her in a shimmering, blue and pink shot silk mantle tied at the neck with a light blue ribbon, over a white dress.
‘Her hair is piled high and powdered in a fashion that was very much in vogue in the 1770s,’ explains Old Masters specialist Louisa Howard. ‘Hairstyles became taller and ever more exaggerated as the decade went on, festooned with flowers, feathers and fruits and ribbons.’
Reynolds depicts his niece reading a copy of Clarissa. ‘It was intended to caution young women against “preferring a Man of Pleasure to a Man of Probity”’ — Louisa Howard
In order to achieve this look Theophila’s tresses would have been combed out and greased with ‘bear’s grease’; a pomade made from animal fat and perfumed to disguise its natural odour. ‘It would then have been curled around metal rods which were heated over a fire, and copious amounts of powder would then have been blown evenly over the coiffure from a cone-shaped trumpet in order to set it in place,’ explains the specialist.
Reynolds depicts his niece engrossed in a copy of Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel relating Clarissa Harlowe’s tribulations after fleeing from marriage to a man she detests. The book was intended by Richardson to caution young women against ‘preferring a Man of Pleasure to a Man of Probity.’
Theophila remained at her uncle’s house until her marriage in January 1781. When Reynolds died 11 years later, she was left a great fortune of £10,000 in his will. She also kept this portrait, which was passed through generations of her family until it was sold at Christie’s in 1871. The painting was later added to a group of Reynolds’ works in the Hillingdon Collection.