This striking full-length portrait was executed by Van Dyck at the fullness of his powers, during his second period in England (spring 1635-late 1639), when he consolidated his reputation as the leading court painter in England. This picture has a remarkable early history, having been either commissioned by, or later acquired by, Philip, 4th Baron Wharton, whose collection of portraits of members of the royal family, his own relations and contemporaries by, or to be associated with, Van Dyck was surpassed in Wharton's day only by those formed by Percy Algernon, 10th Earl of Northumberland (d. 1668) and by King Charles I himself (d. 1649). It was later owned by Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister (1721-42), the majority of whose picture collection was eventually sold to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (d. 1796) in 1779 and are now in The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. At his son's sale in 1751 this picture was purchased by Walpole's political associate, Lord Hardwicke, later Lord Chancellor.
The eldest child and only daughter of William Cavendish, 3rd Earl of Devonshire (d. 1684), the sitter married Robert, Lord Rich, later 3rd Earl of Warwick (d. 1628), on 9 April 1632, thus becoming daughter-in-law of Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick (d. 1658), one of the most consistent and effective opponents of King Charles I and himself the subject of one of Van Dyck's most magnificent full-length portraits (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; see O. Millar, op. cit., 2004, no. IV.234). Lady Rich's premature death in August 1638, aged 27, was lamented in verses by Sidney Godolphin and Edmund Waller: 'sweet humility; her look and mind At once were lofty, and at once were kind' (Waller, Poems, 1893, I, p. 38, cited in O. Millar, op. cit., 2004, p. 583). A central theme in Waller's Poems was Lady Rich's friendship with Lady Dorothy Sidney, later Countess of Sunderland (d. 1684): 'the lovely passion each to other bare' (ibid.; see no. IV.223). The sitter was painted in circa 1628 by Cornelius Johnson (d. 1661) on a canvas that was stitched on to the group portrait of her mother, Christina, Countess of Devonshire (d. 1675) and her two brothers, Charles (d. 1643) and William, 3rd Earl of Devonshire (d. 1684) (Chatsworth House, Derbyshire; see C.H. Collins Baker, Lely & the Stuart Portrait Painters, London, 1912, I, pp. 58-9, illustrated), all of whom were also painted by Van Dyck (see O. Millar, op. cit., 2004, nos. IV.88, IV.43 and IV.89 respectively). A three-quarter-length copy of the present full-length portrait of Lady Rich is at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.
Sir Oliver Millar, in his appraisal of Lord Wharton's collection, commented that: 'of all Wharton's female full-lengths this [portrait of Lady Rich] is the finest; slightly unconventional in stance; unusual in colour; richly painted with a fine nervous touch throughout; and amusing in character' (O. Millar, op. cit., 1994, p. 529). Lord Wharton, who was a Puritan, a Parliamentarian during the English Civil War and favourite of Oliver Cromwell during the Protectorate, may have been inspired to obtain a portrait of Lady Rich on account of her father-in-law's revolutionary tendencies. Lord Wharton's own three-quarter-length portrait by Van Dyck is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (see O. Millar, op. cit., 2004, no. IV.237). Wharton displayed this notable collection of portraits in a purpose-built one-hundred-and-twenty foot long gallery at his Wooburn estate in Buckinghamshire, possibly inspired by the Cross Gallery at Somerset House, London. The inscription on this portrait is of a standard form applied to Lord Wharton's pictures, at an early date, but not within Van Dyck's lifetime. The only other galleries of portraits to be so comprehensively inscribed by collectors in England in the seventeenth century were those assembled by Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (d. 1674) and Sir Harbottle Grimston, 2nd Bt. (d. 1685), barrister and politician.
Lord Wharton's heir, Thomas Wharton, 5th Baron Wharton, a prominent member of the Whig Junta and of the Kit-Kat Club (not to mention a noted rake, celebrated duellist and lavish patron of the turf), who succeeded to the title in 1696 and was successively created Earl (1706) and Marquess (1715) of Wharton, abandoned Wooburn and moved the picture collection to a purpose-built gallery at Upper Winchendon, Buckinghamshire. On his death, the collection fell into the hands of the 1st Marquess of Wharton's son, Philip, Duke of Wharton. Described by Alexander Pope as 'the scorn and wonder of our days' (Epistle to Cobham, cited in O. Millar, op. cit., 1994, p. 522), the Duke of Wharton joined the Tory party, squandered an immense fortune, and eventually left England to embrace Jacobitism and a second (Roman Catholic) wife. The estate at Winchendon and the collection of portraits were sold in 1725; the former to the Duke of Marlborough, the latter to Sir Robert Walpole, reputedly for £1,500. The Duke of Wharton's honours and estates were forfeited in 1729, and he eventually died, without a surviving male heir, in a Cistercian monastery in Catalonia, in 1731.
'My father', wrote Horace Walpole in his account of Van Dyck, 'bought of the last duke the whole collection of the Wharton family. There were twelve whole lengths, the two girls, six half lengths and two more by Sir Peter Lely; he paid an hundred pounds each for the whole lengths and the double picture, and fifty pounds each for the half lengths' (H. Walpole, op. cit., p. 92). The collection was divided between Houghton Hall and Walpole's houses in London and Richmond. The portraits at Houghton were eventually among the pictures sold in 1779 to Catherine the Great by Horace Walpole's unstable nephew George, who succeeded as 3rd Earl of Orford in 1751, for £40,550. Horace Walpole's 1736 Catalogue records this Portrait of Lady Rich as in Grosvenor Street, in the 'Great Room above', with Van Dyck full-lengths of King Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, Philip, Lord Wharton, Countess of Chesterfield and Lady Worcester (cited in A. Moore and L. Dukelskaya, op. cit., p. 448). This painting was one of a number of pictures in Walpole's houses in London and Richmond that were put up for sale on the death of his heir, Robert, 2nd Earl of Orford, in 1751. It was then by descent in the Hardwicke family, at Wrest Park and Wimpole, passing by inheritance into the Lucas family, with whom it remained until 1970.