The present unfinished portrait of Judith Noel, Lady Milbanke (1751-1822) had been previously attributed to Gilbert Stuart on account of its descent with the portrait of her husband, Sir Ralph (see preceding lot 58) in the Groult collection. The style of the sitter's hair, hat and dress seem to date the portrait to circa 1789-90. Rather than the product of Stuart's Dublin period or his brief return to London in 1788, however, it would appear to be an early work by the precocious Thomas Lawrence. The tightly and beautifully drawn features, the bright red lips with a single highlight and the greenish-blue background compare closely with his portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren of 1790 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) which caused a sensation at the Royal Academy of that year. An unfinished head sketch of Elizabeth Farren dated to circa 1790 (private collection; see K. Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Oxford, 1989, no. 294b, p. 188) shows the same use of a dark modeling area to the side of the face. Furthermore, the sheer bravura and fluidity of the brushwork reveals the prodigious talents of this young artist.
Lawrence arrived in London in 1787 having forged a reputation as a portrait draftsman in the West Country and was admitted as a student at the Royal Academy Schools later that year. His success in London was instantaneous and he exhibited six works at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1788 (five oils and one pastel). In September 1789 at the age of just twenty he was summoned to Windsor to paint Queen Charlotte in a full-length portrait sitting before Eton College (National Gallery, London). This work, which was also shown at the Academy of 1790 to great acclaim, helped launch his career as the leading portrait-painter in Regency England.
Judith, Lady Milbanke also sat to John Downman on several occasions in 1784-85 and appears as a young woman in a conversation piece by Tilly Kettle of circa 1767.