Contrary to the traditional identification of the sitter as Mary, Countess Grey, we are grateful to Kenneth Garlick for pointing out that the sitter should in fact be identified as Elizabeth, Duchess of Devonshire, the second wife of the 5th Duke.
In his catalogue raisonné Garlick records a pencil, black and red chalk drawing (10½ x 8¼ in.) of the Duchess at Chatsworth and a replica at Windsor but further research has indicated that these are both engravings and that the present drawing is in fact the original version, after which the engravings were made. Garlick also records a repetition of the work at the Musée Bonnat in Bayonne but this is a watercolour of questionable attribution (see K. Garlick, 'A Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings and Pastels of Sir Thomas Lawrence', Walpole Society, 1962-4, vol XXXIX, p. 224).
It has not been possible to identify the writer of the inscription on the reverse of the frame which identifies the sitter incorrectly as 'Mary Countess Grey', but we are grateful to Charles Noble, Deputy Keeper at Chatsworth, for suggesting that the drawing was probably lent or given to the Greys. There was certainly a strong friendship between the Greys and the Duke, and Chatsworth hold a number of letters between them, Mary Grey was a Ponsonby, so was also related to the Cavendish family. In addition the Duke was known to be a generous man, and even gave some of his Raphael drawings to Lawrence, so it is quite possible that he gave this drawing to the Greys and that with the descent of the drawing through generations of Greys, the identity of the sitter also changed to one of their own family and in spite of the large label on the reverse about the 6th Duke's ownership - the link to the Devonshires would ultimately have been lost.
Elizabeth Duchess of Devonshire was the 2nd daughter of the 4th Earl of Bristol. Her first husband was John Thomas Foster of Dunleer who she married in 1776, but she was widowed at an early age; she met Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire while travelling on the continent following her husband's death. Georgiana and Elizabeth became close friends and on their return to London, Elizabeth also formed a liaison with the Duke, the three then lived together in London in a notorious ménage à trois. Elizabeth or 'Bess' as she was commonly known was much admired as a great beauty, Edward Gibbon, the distinguished historian, wrote of her looks in relation to the first Duchess 'Bess is much nearer the level of a mortal but a mortal for whom the wisest man, historic or medical, would throw away two or three worlds if he had them in possession.' In 1809 Elizabeth became the second wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and after his death in 1811, she moved to Rome. There she befriended some of the most distinguished Italians and foreigners alike and her house became a magnet for the international artistic community gathered in Rome. The writer George Ticknor related that he went to her 'conversaziones as to a great exchange to see who is in Rome, and to meet what is called the world' (Letters and Journals, I, p. 180). He also commented that the Duchess though 'a good respectable woman in her way', yet 'attempts to play the Maecenas a little too much'. Elizabeth was a generous patron of the fine arts and numbered Canova and Thorwaldsen among her close friends. She also arranged for the printing of a number of special editions of books from Horace to Virgil which she presented to various European royalty.
The present drawing was probably executed in Rome in 1819 as in that year the Duchess met frequently with Lawrence there. At the time of her first marriage she was also painted by Reynolds, Gainsborough and Kauffmann . The Gainsborough portrait is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
We are grateful to Dr Kenneth Garlick for his help