In the autumn of 1806 Constable visited the Lake District on a tour financed by his uncle, David Pike Watts. He had hoped to gain crictical recognition with his pictures of fashionable Lake District countryside, but, on his return to London, the lukewarm reception to his exhibits and the continuing lack of professional success made him think of abandoning art. Fortunately, early in 1807, Peter Firmin, a Dedham attorney and business associate of Constable's father, Golding Constable, introduced Constable to the Dysarts of Helmingham Hall, Suffolk, who employed him as an adviser on their pictures and also commissioned him to make copies of family portraits. At the beginning of September 1807, Constable began making copies of portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Hoppner and Daniel Gardner, at the Piccadilly town house of Lionel, 5th Earl of Dysart and his wife, Magdalena. This introduction to the Dysarts led to further important commissions from other family members, including Magalena's brother, Henry Greswold Lewis, whose country house, Malvern Hall, Warwickshire, Constable painted in 1809 and again 1819. The commission also led Constable to study the methods of those artists whose work he was copying, thereby enhancing his technique, as C.R. Leslie records in his biography of Constable:
'In the history of Constable's development in landscape this commission had unexpected importance...What he learnt about the technique of flesh painting, how to build it up solidly, but so that it should be brilliant, not opaque, became of great value to him in enriching his skies.'
(C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, R.A., London, 1937, p. 29).
Elizabeth, Lady Croft (1755-1815), was a daughter of David Lewis of Malvern Hall, Warwickshire, and sister of Magdalena, Countess of Dysart, and Henry Greswold Lewis. On 25 September 1795, she married the author Sir Herbert Croft, 5th Bt., a prolific and admired writer. Croft however, frequently found himself in financial difficulties, indeed it appears from his letters that the day following his second marriage, he was arrested and imprisoned at Exeter jail. Their marriage was short-lived and following their separation, Croft lived in Europe.
In this portrait Constable adapts to a half-length format, an oval portrait of Elizabeth Lewis picking flowers in a wooded landscape painted by Daniel Gardner (see fig. 1), last recorded in the collection of Asher Wertheimer in 1921. His distinctive brushwork is particularly apparent in the dramatically coloured woodland background. The canvas duty stamp on the reverse of the unlined canvas suggests that the picture was painted in, and certainly not before, 1807. Another, almost identical, version by Constable of Gardner's portrait, also believed to have been painted in 1807, is recorded in a private collection.