Lawrence's portrait of Emily de Visme, painted in circa 1794 when the artist was in his mid-twenties, is among the most compelling of any of his portraits of children and clearly shows the precocious talent that by this relatively early stage in his career had already marked him out as one of the pre-eminent portrait painters in England and a worthy successor to Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Lawrence had moved to London from Bath in 1787 and immediately took the opportunity to show his work at the annual Royal Academy exhibition at Somerset House that summer. The majority of his entries to the Royal Academy exhibitions in 1787 and 1788 were pastel portraits, the few portraits in oil receiving at best only mixed reviews in the press. Despite this hesitant start, Lawrence increasingly turned his prodigious talent to painting in oil and the portraits in that medium that he exhibited at the Academy in 1789, such as his full-length of Lady Cremorne (London, Tate Gallery), and his three-quarter-length of The Countess of Oxford (National Trust, Fyvie Castle), showed the extent of his rapid evolution in this area. These portraits elicited much praise among the various critics of the exhibition with the The World lauding him as 'the Sir Joshua of futurity'. By 1789 Lawrence's reputation was such that Queen Charlotte was persuaded to commission a portrait from him. The resultant full-length, despite Royal disapproval, won him wide acclaim when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1790, and together with his electrifying full-length Portrait of Elizabeth Farren, exhibited at the Academy the same year, established him in many eyes as the most exciting portrait painter in London. Lawrence's success was reflected in his appointment as Painter-in-Ordinary to His Majesty on 26 February 1792, in succession to Sir Joshua Reynolds who had died three days previously, and his election as an Associate of the Royal Academy in November 1791 and later as a full Academician in 1794, at the age of only twenty five.
Alongside his increasingly confident, innovative and perceptive portraits of adult sitters in the 1790s, Lawrence demonstrated a particular ability when portraying more youthful sitters, a talent that was to stay with him for the rest of his career. Among the most celebrated of his portraits from the first half of the 1790s are a number of portraits of children, such as those of Arthur Annesley of circa 1790-5 (British private collection), Arthur Atherley, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1792 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, William Randolf Hearst Collection), and his full-length of Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton of 1795 (San Marino, California, Huntington Library).
Emily de Visme (1787-1873), was the illegitimate daughter and heir of Gerard de Visme (1726-1797), whose father Philippe de Visme, a French Huguenot, had settled in England during the religious persecutions in France. She was born in Portugal where her father lived on a large quinta at Benfica, in the then-outskirts of Lisbon, and later on the Monserrate estate, near Sintra, acquired by her father in 1790, that was later to become famous through its connection with William Beckford, who rented the estate in 1794 and lived there until 1796. In 1791 she was brought to England where she was naturalized by Private Act of Parliament that received Royal Assent on 26 May 1798. She married in 1810 the Hon. Henry Murray (d. 1860), fourth son of David Murray, 7th Viscount Stormont and 2nd Earl of Mansfield, the marriage taking place at the house of Mrs Annabella Lockhart, 5 Spanish Place, Manchester Square. Her husband was to distinguish himself in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, serving in the 14th Dragoons and rising to the rank of Lieutenant-General. The fashionable portrait painter Richard Cosway executed a pair of pencil portraits of the couple in 1819 and the sitter was also to sit to Henry Raeburn, whose half-length portrait of her is recorded in the collection of the Earls of Mansfield. The couple had three sons, Henry Stormont Murray (1812-1863), Frederick Stormont Murray (1813-1903), who was in the Royal Navy, and Arthur Stormont Murray (1820-1848), who was in the Rifle Brigade and was killed in the Kaffir War in 1848, and also two daughters, Susan (d. 1874) and Gertrude Louise (d. 1904), both of whom remained unmarried.
Emily de Visme sat to Lawrence when she was about seven years old and Lawrence's portrait elegantly captures not only her individuality but also a more universal sense of the innocence and simplicity of childhood. The portrait is characteristic of Lawrence's portraits of this date in its handling showing much of the 'sharp observation and the crisp, luscious application of paint' that Michael Levey discerned as distinguishing his work from that of the previous generation, especially in his portraits of Queen Charlotte and Miss Farren (M. Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence, New Haven and London, 2005, p. 92). Bond's engraving of the portrait of 1794 was entitled The Woodland Maid and was accompanied by a quotation from James Thomson's poem The Seasons beginning:
'Hence let me haste into the Mid-Wood shade
Where scarce a Sunbeam wanders thro' the gloom,
And on the dark-green Grass, beside the Brink
Of Haunted Stream, that by the the Roots of Oak
Rolls o'er the rocky channel, lie at large,
And sing the glories of the circling Year.'
In the backgrounds of his early portraits Lawrence showed a deep interest in the potential for landscape, and in this portrait he does full justice to Thomson's imagery with a bravura display of landscape painting, which provides a dreamy and excitingly fresh setting for his young sitter that seems to echo her youth.
Recognised as one of the most impressive achievements of Lawrence's early career, Emily de Visme's portrait has a colourful provenance. It was inherited by the sitter's daughter, Miss Gertrude Louise Murray, who sold it at Christie's in 1904, when it was bought by Colnaghi. It then entered the collection of the celebrated financier and racehorse owner Solomon Barnato Joel (1865-1931). Joel, who was born and brought up in the East End of London, had made a large fortune in the diamond business in South Africa. Alongside a passion for the turf he formed a celebrated collection of pictures and furniture that was housed between his various country estates and his London house in Great Stanhope Street. This picture was included in the posthumous sale of Joel's collection of English pictures from his house in Great Stanhope Street in 1935, when it was bought by Gooden and Fox. The sale included, among other works, four other pictures by Lawrence, as well as important works by Gainsborough, Hoppner, Romney, Reynolds, Raeburn and Morland.
The picture was later in the collection of Ernest Edward Cook (1865-1955), the grandson of Thomas Cook, founder of the eponymous travel agent. Together with his elder brother Frank, Ernest Cook had successfully carried on the family business after their father's death, and then sold it in February 1928 for £3.5 million, after which he devoted the rest of his life to cultural pursuits. He was to form an important collection of pictures and furniture with over two hundred pictures, watercolours and prints, including works by English artists such as Bonington, Constable, Gainsborough, Romney, Turner and Zoffany, as well as works by Old Masters including Claude, Hobbema, Ruisdael and Tiepolo, many of which he bequeathed to the National Arts Collection Fund. Complementing his passion for the arts Cook was also deeply interested in the preservation of English country houses and estates, acquiring several himself and also making significant contributions to the National Trust. Between 1931 and 1955 Cook spent over £1.2m on the purchase of seventeen landed estates including Coleshill, Great Maythem, Hartwell, Montacute, and Buscot, later selling some, vesting others in the National Trust and setting up a charitable trust to provide for those remaining. It is not clear at what point this picture left Cook's collection but by 1961, when it was included in the Lawrence exhibition at the Royal Academy, it was already in the collection of J.H. Joel, in whose possession it remained until it was sold at Christie's in 1978. H.J Joel, known as Jim Joel, was the great nephew of Solomon Barnato Joel, and had followed in his great-uncle's footsteps into the diamond business, becoming a director of De Beers. He was also a notable racehorse owner whose horses won the Derby in 1969 and the Grand National in 1987. Joel's celebrated collecton of English sporting pictures, which included John Frederick Herring's large canvas 'The Doncaster Cup of 1838', was sold at Christie's on 13 July 1984. At the 1978 Christie's sale the picture was bought by the present owner's husband for the then record price for the artist at auction.