Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Enticing (and Mysterious) Mrs. Faber, c. 1750

Sunday, December 1, 2013
Isabella reporting,

Several weeks ago I posted this charmingly intimate portrait, left, on my Facebook page, and the discussion was so interesting - and so intriguing - that I decided it needed to appear here on the blog as well.

The lady in this portrait is Mrs. John Faber, painted by Thomas Hudson about 1750. Mr. Faber (1695?-1756) was an engraver who specialized in making mezzotint engravings of the paintings of other, more famous artists. Mrs. Faber is shown in elegantly provocative deshabille, in a silk dressing gown that is wrapped over her shift. She holds her scarf both as if to relish the sensual softness of the fur, and also to coyly expose her bare breast; she's clearly not wearing stays. The fur, the silk, and the pearls in her ears and around her throat attest to her husband's success and prosperity.

While mistresses and actresses were painted in this kind of provocative pose, it's unusual to find one of a respectable wife. Almost nothing is known of Mrs. Faber (not even her first name!), but if the 1750 date of the portrait is accurate, Faber himself was 55 when it was painted, making his wife much younger. Perhaps she was a Georgian "trophy wife," and he was sufficiently proud of her seductive beauty that he commissioned this portrait.

Or perhaps not. When I searched around the internet, I found another version of this same portrait, by the same artist, with nearly the same date. While the pose is the same, the dressing gown is not as revealing and the cap is less flirtatiously ruffled. It's also a less flattering portrait of Mrs. Faber's face.

So which portrait was done first? Was one deemed too unflattering, and a second one painted? Or was one version painted for private viewing, and another for a more public place? Could Mrs. Faber herself have asked for a portrait that showed her looking younger than she really was? Faber himself must have been reasonably pleased by the more severe portrait, for he made this mezzotint copy of it.

But more unsettling is this mezzotint engraving, right, that Mr. Faber did of the prettier version of his wife's portrait. It's a skillful trompe l'oeil version of the portrait, showing it as if the covering glass had been broken within a frame. But why would a husband choose to interpret his wife's portrait covered with jagged shards of broken glass? Is it simply a commentary on vanity, or something more ominous? (In fairness, I do have to note that some sources don't attribute this print to Faber, but to the ever-anonymous "English School.")

The explanations behind all these mysteries – as well as Mrs. Faber's side of the story – are lost now, or at least waiting to be rediscovered by some intrepid art historian. If there is one out there who has investigated these portraits, I hope she or he will comment. One fact about Mrs. Faber does remain, thanks to Horace Walpole: that after her husband's death in 1756, she remarried, to a lawyer named Smith. I can only hope she was happy.

Above: Mrs. John Faber, by Thomas Hudson, c. 1750. Private collection.
Below: A trompe l'oeil with a portrait of Mrs. John Faber the younger, the engraver's wife, after Thomas Hudson. 18th c. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Ladies for this interesting blog about an interesting woman. I'm working slowly on an article about frames and trompe l'oeil effects in portrait engravings! May be this broken glass means the relationship between the painter and his wife was broken? The painting is very seductive!

Rob de Bree Antiquariaat De Zilveren Eeuw

Anonymous said...

Ah... "mysterious," indeed! Mrs. Faber is quickly becoming the 18th century Mona Lisa, with her enigmatic smile. And will the Real Mrs. Faber please stand up?

Thanks for the thought-provoking post and for the continuation of the discussion. Love it!
Joyce Gilb Bucci

Sassy Countess said...

I was enticed by the beautiful portrait. However, I would say that the "fractured" one is even more interesting. While she is more beautiful in the first one, she is still very pretty in the other. I find the fracturing very intriguing because I have never seen anything like that before.

Jasmin Leuthold said...

Hi Isabella,
I am a hobby genealogist so I started to try to find out about the artist/engraver you mentioned called John Faber.Through online records on I can see that there is an apprenticeship record where a John Faber,an engraver,of the parish of st.George,Bloomsbury ,London,engaged an apprentice called Thomas Ryley on the 31 st of August 1736.
Going backwards a bit in 1730 there was John Faber,widow, of the parish of st.Clement Danes and Warbrove(or Warbrough) Witchurch of St.Olave Southwark, spinster ,who were married by Reverend Stubbs the Archdeacon of St.Albans,Greenwich ,Kent on the 28th of June. I think this must be the engraver John Faber because there is a record of a mezzotint being made of the Rev.Stubbs of St.Albans Church by John Faber in 1722 !
John Faber had five children with Warbrove Whitchurch .
Elizabeth Albertus 2 Mai 1731 at St.Clement Danes,London
Elizabeth7 Juni 1733 ditto
John 7 Jun 1734 ditto
Lucy bp 23 Nov 1735 at St.George’s,Bloomsbury
Hannah bp 8 May 1737 ditto
On the 2 Nov 1737 „Mrs Warbrove Faber „ was buried St.George’s Bloomsbury.
On the 7th of Sep 1738 John Faber married Jane Oliver at St.Martin in the Fields, London.
They had also five children all in the parish of St.George’s Bloomsbury
Elizabeth Dorothy Faber bp31 Aug 1740
Ann bp 2 Sep 1743
John bp1744
James bp 1751
Anna Bella Sarah bp 1755
Apparently John Faber died in 1756 and indeed that couple do not appear to have had any more children.
THEREFORE -If the date of the portrait is abt 1750 I think that the Mrs.Faber was most probably Jane Faber (neé Oliver).
Most probably art historians know a bit more about him but I looked on google and can’t seem to find out much about him either except that he was based in Bloomsbury and that fits in with the John Faber who was having children in that district from 1735-55.
P.S I also love the painting !

Liz W. said...

The "unflattering" portrait has the look a study. The brush strokes are sketchy and the details (earrings, cap ribbon, neck ribbon, etc.)are not very cohesive.

In the pink wrapper version there are major differences in her jewelry and the trimming of her cap which clean up the composition.

The mezzontint is from the pink dress version.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic piece of research, thank you so much, I've been riveted by all this history!

thepragmaticcostumer said...

How fascinating! In actuality, I find the alternate (silver) version to be more provocative than the pink version! Her face is much more realistic, her eyebrows more arched, her stare more direct. The pink version is like Venus of Urbino by Titian and the silver version is Olympia by Manet!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I love how you readers contribute info to posts! :)

Rob~I wondered if the broken glass indicated some sort of shattered relationship or trust too.

Jasmin~Whew, that's a sizable amount of research! I do know that this John Faber is the son of John Faber Senior (c.1660–1721), another engraver, who was born in the Hague and taught his son the trade. Always complicated for genealogists when family members share the same name, but it looks like you found the right one. Many thanks for sharing - and for giving Mrs. Faber a first name.

LizW~You're right, the grey-gown version could be a study. That makes sense - it has more immediacy, less polish.

Theprgamaticcostumer ~ Yes! She DOES have the same expression as Manet's Olympia! There's a shrewd, matter-of-fact look to her in the grey-gown version that I actually prefer. It's easy to imagine that woman helping in her husband's shop, making sure no one cheats him, while managing all those children (which, thanks to Jasmin's research, we now know were in the household.) Excellent observation...

Jasmin Leuthold said...

I am getting hooked on John Faber's life and times (and wives) !
I just noticed this mentioned of John Faber in the Derby Mercury 13th of October 1737 reporting news under the head-line London
„On Saturday morning about One oc’clock,Mr Faber of Bloomsbury square,was attack’d by a Rogue n Southampton street,who attempted to knock him down with a Pistol,which unfortunately went off and shot Mr Faber in the breast:the Villain was so much surpris’d by the accident,that he made off without any Booty, and left the Gentleman for dead.He was carried home by the Watch,and is under the Care of Mr.Bell,Surgeon; but he is so desparately wounded that it’s feared he cannot live.“
This has thrown a spanner in the works as far as short research I just did on him.But he must have survived-the interesting thing is that his wife,Warbrove dies less than a month later after this incident.Was she there at the time ? It makes for a good Georgian novel Ms Bradford !

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Ooh, Jasmin, thank you so much for the continuing saga of Mr. Faber! This is fascinating on so many counts. Very, very few people would have survived a pistol shot to the breast at such close-range in 1737. Like you, I wonder if poor Warbrove was the real victim of the misfired gun, and the attack was incorrectly reported in the Derby Mercury. Excellent sleuthing - and you're right, it would be good inspiration for a book! :)

Frances Bevan said...

A fascinating post followed by some equally interesting comments.

Anonymous said...

the fabers were a wild bunch, for sure. i have a print signed "joh faber" which i believe was done by faber sr. who is quite famous and in all my books about fine prints. this print was done on a hymnal page which has a song and notes on the reverse side. after extensive research i discovered that the print is a copy of a famous print by carracci and an exceptionally fine reproduction, although the artist added a figure that isnt in the original. after all this research nothing would surprise me about someone named john faber. neil

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