The sitter in this engaging portrait has traditionally been identified as the celebrated actress Margaret (Peg) Woffington (1714(?)-1760). Born in Dublin, Woffington had already attracted attention on account of her beauty as a child, and by the age of ten she was already acting with the Dublin Lilliputian company in the role of Polly Peachum in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. She later performed as Ophelia in Dublin in 1737, before undertaking one of her greatest roles as Sir Harry Windair in Farquhar’s Constant Couple which, in 1740, saw her engagement by John Rich at Covent Garden. She continued to play several Shakespearian roles in London and performed opposite David Garrick, with whom she had a much publicized affair, in King Lear and Richard III. Ill-health forced her to retire from the stage in 1757.
On stylistic grounds, this portrait appears to date from the mid 1740s. The dress worn by the sitter, which incorporates a number of lace frills up the sleeves, indicates that the sitter was a very young woman. Almost unique amongst Hogarth’s portraits framed in a fictive oval is the artist’s virtuoso rendering of the woman’s dress which is caught over the edge of the stone frame, conveying a lively sense of physicality and immediacy to the portrait. The sitter’s physiognomy bears some resemblance to known portraits of Woffington, for example to that by John Brooks in the National Portrait Gallery, London (inv. no. 5729), but such comparisons do not make for a conclusive identification. In the absence of any known early provenance which links the picture to Woffington, and the lack of any definite attributes which were commonly included in portraits of actors, the traditional identification as Woffington was questioned by both Becket (op.cit.) and also by Kerslake, who implicitly rejected it, dismissing ‘all the portraits by Hogarth or attributed to Hogarth ...’ (J. Kerslake, National Portrait Gallery, Early Georgian Portraits, London, 1977, I, p. 313).
The painting is first recorded in the collection of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st Bt. (1823-1906), a prominent Glasgow industrialist and Member of Parliament for Glasgow between 1879 and 1880 and later for Peebles and Selkirk between 1880 and 1886. As a trustees of the National Gallery, Tennant also formed his own notable collection of paintings with the help of W. Morland Agnew who catalogued the collection in 1896. He was principally interested in British paintings, with his collection including ten paintings by Reynolds, as well as works by almost all of the leading British artists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Gainsborough, Romney, Hoppner, Morland, Bonnington, Turner, Constable, Wilkie and Etty. The collection was divided between Tennant’s London house in Queen Anne’s Gate, where the ‘Tennant Gallery’ was regularly opened to the public, and his Scottish baronial mansion, The Glen, near Inner Leithen. This picture was acquired in 1960 by The Hon. Mrs Nellie Ionides (1883-1962), the eldest daughter of Sir Marcus Samuel, later Viscount Bearsted, Lord Mayor of London from 1902-3, whose family had established Shell Transport (later known as Shell Oil). Together with her husband Basil Ionides, she built up a remarkable collection of topographical paintings and prints of Thameside pictures of Twickenham and Richmond which were left on her death to Orleans House, which she had bought to save from demolition in 1926.