This spectacular portrait of Lady Frances Marsham, not seen on the market since the late-19th century, is exceptionally well preserved and a superb example of a full length by Reynolds from the 1770s, the decade in which he would secure his reputation as the dominant artistic figure of the age of George III.
Between 1773 and 1779 Reynolds exhibited no fewer than sixteen female full-length portraits of celebrated aristocratic ‘beauties’ at the Royal Academy. The middle years of that decade witnessed some of the artist’s great masterpieces in the genre; in 1776, the year his celebrated portrait of Omai was shown at the Academy, Reynolds also exhibited full-lengths of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (San Marino, The Huntington Art Gallery) and Mrs Lloyd (Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor). The present picture, dated by David Mannings to circa 1775 (loc. cit.), was shown in 1777 alongside portraits of Lady Bampfylde (London, Tate Britain) and The Countess of Derby, a work later destroyed by her husband, Edward, 12th Earl of Derby, after she left him. This portrait of Lady Frances received particular praise from the reviewer of the exhibition for the Morning Post (25 April 1777) who reported: ‘The best portrait of the three being a whole length of Lady Frances Marsham’.
In devising Frances Marsham’s pose, Reynolds echoes an earlier portrait of Mrs Thomas Riddell, whom he had painted in 1763 (Newcastle, Laing Art Gallery). In the Marsham portrait, Reynolds places the sitter slightly off-centre, thereby engendering a sense of immediacy and informality. Lady Frances, who is shown in a satin gown with her powdered hair worn high in the characteristically exaggerated fashion of the day, appears to have just entered the scene, her diaphanous shawl still billowing as she momentarily pauses and gestures towards the open park landscape.
The present picture is in remarkably original condition. The artist was notoriously experimental with materials and techniques, and such was his preoccupation with surface effects – a result of his lifelong admiration for the old masters, particularly Titian and Rembrandt – that many of his pictures needed to be restored during his own lifetime. Many have since suffered from natural deterioration and imprudent restoration. However, in this picture the paint texture and impasto, most notably in the use of lead white for the highlights in the sitter’s shawl, are beautifully preserved. The full breadth of the artist’s masterful handling is wonderfully tangible in the broad gestural brushstrokes, and use of the palette knife in the tree and foliage. This rapid and loose handling of the brush is in striking contrast to the carefully rendered detail of the wild flowers on the woodland floor. The virtuoso execution serves to remind us that Reynolds delighted in the painting of landscapes and found the genre immensely rewarding.
The sitter was the daughter of Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont (1710-1763), and his wife the Hon. Alicia Maria Carpenter. On 30 August 1776 she married Charles Marsham (1744-1811), the son of Robert Marsham, 2nd Baron Romney and Priscilla Pym. The sitter’s husband was M.P. for Maidstone in Kent between 1768-1774 and was later Lord Lieutenant of the county from 1797-1808. In 1799 he entertained King George III at their seat, Moat House, Maidstone, when the king reviewed three thousand of the Kentish volunteers. Succeeding as 3rd Baron Romney in 1793, he was created Viscount Marsham of the Mote in the County of Kent, and Earl of Romney in 1801.
The sitter’s father, who served as Secretary of State in the Earl of Bute’s government, was a significant collector and patron of the arts. Lord Egremont employed Matthew Brettingham, the executant architect of Holkham Hall, at Petworth House, his seat in Sussex, and commissioned him to design Egremont House in Piccadilly. This celebrated London palace overlooking Green Park would house one of the finest mid-18th-century picture collections in England until the house was sold in 1794 by the sitter’s brother, George, the 3rd Earl, and the contents moved to Petworth. The 3rd Earl’s seventy-five year reign at Petworth is regarded as the house’s golden age, and at his death in 1837 there were (and remain) more than 600 pictures in the collection, including twenty portraits by van Dyck and the same number of works by Lord Egremont’s friend, J.M.W. Turner.
Acquired by Lord Burton for Chesterfeld House, this portrait of Lady Romney, his most expensive purchase during a sustained period of collecting, was paired with another exceptional full-length female portrait by Reynolds of Lady Sunderlin (fig. 1; Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) as the principal over-mantels in the Ball Room. A three-quarter-length version of the present picture, painted for Lady Frances’s sister and her husband, Lord Carnarvon, and described by Mannings as ‘a studio replica’ (loc. cit., p. 328, no. 1224), is in a British private collection.