Thursday, December 11, 2014

One More Lady in a Pink Sultana, 1775

Thursday, December 11, 2014
Isabella reporting,

Earlier this year, I wrote this post comparing two portraits of ladies wearing similar, "Turkish" inspired dress for portraits.

While this kind of relaxed attire - featuring an unstructured, T-shaped garment called a sultana, a sash at the waist, and none of the stiff 18th c. stays and hoops required for more formal dress – was popular for at-home wear, such garments in portraits could also be a costume supplied by the painter. Additional exotic elements like strands of glass pearls, plumes, scarves, and faux jewels could be staples of a studio's wardrobe, ready to be combined to convey a sense of elegance to a portrait of a lady (or would-be lady.)

Recently I came across another portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby that pretty much proves that the pink sultana worn in the 1770 Portrait of a Woman, right, is in fact a studio costume, and not the lady's own dress. Mrs. Frances Hesketh, left, is wearing virtually the same outfit for her portrait, painted by Wright in 1769. Not only is the pink sultana with the pearl trim at the elbows the same, but there's the same sash and striped gauzy scarf, and even the same strand of pearls threaded through the sitter's hair - which is also dressed in nearly the same style.

Yet despite the similar dress, Wright has done other things to show these are two very different women. Although the identity of the lady, right, is now lost, most scholars believe that she was the wealthy wife of a middle-class merchant form Liverpool. She is shown indoors, sitting in affluent surroundings, seemingly interrupted at her handwork but ready to welcome the viewer with a gracious half-smile: all subtle hints that (despite being dressed like a sultan's favorite) her life was centered on her home and the husband paying for the portrait, and that she was proud to be shown industriously enhancing that home with her own handwork.

Despite wearing the same sultana, Mrs. Hesketh's portrait shows a lady determined to present a very different image. There are no domestic trappings to be seen here. Instead she is shown outdoors, against a romantically cloud-tossed sky, and she looks not at the viewer, but off in the distance, lost in her own meditative thoughts. The large urn and stone balustrade create a classically-inspired setting, showing that she is sufficiently sophisticated to be aware of the Georgian era's rediscovery of ancient Greece and Rome. Instead of needlework, she is holding an open book, a sure sign of learning in a lady's portrait.

In status, she is most likely of a much higher rank than the other sitter.  Her husband (the wonderfully named Fleetwood Hesketh) was a prosperous country squire. His family was one of the most prominent landowners in Lancashire, and the landscape in the background might in fact show recognizable hills and lakes owned by the Heskeths. Mary Bold Hesketh had been an heiress in her own right, which would have placed her among the cream of the county's society.

It's no wonder, then, that her pose is consciously similar to those in the portraits of aristocratic ladies being painted at the same time in London, making it something of an aspirational portrait. But I have to wonder if Joseph Wright was as eager to rise to the ranks of artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds (and charge Reynolds' £100+ fees rather than the much more humble ten guineas that Wright received for this portrait) as Mrs. Hesketh was to be included among duchesses and marchionesses.

Above left: Mrs. Frances Hesketh, by Joseph Wright (Wright of Derby), c. 1775-76, National Museum of Liverpool.
Below right: Portrait of a Woman, by Joseph Wright (Wright of Derby), c. 1770, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Mulling over Mrs. Hesketh further this morning - I'm wondering about the significance (because it HAS to have a significance!) of the cut-off tree limb. Did someone in her family recently die? Is she reading a religious book that's giving her comfort regarding her loss? Is she looking up in the direction of that cut-off branch and thinking of the departed? Yet she's clearly not dressed in mourning. Hmmm....

Sarah Waldock said...

Fascinating the idea of using studio prop costumes. A sultana would be more comfortable for a sitter as well. Perhaps it was as much to put them at ease as for the costume itself... it's very difficult when the client is ill at ease, and not entirely comfortable

msHedgehog said...

Is it not even more likely that the dress was never worn by either sitter, but by a professional model who posed for the figure while the clients, like Holbein's, sat only for the face, and perhaps the hands?

Elena Jardiniz said...

msHedgehog brought up a point I hadn't thought of. Thank you. With the ladies' completely different poses it's hard to tell if the body is the same, but I would guess the poses certainly were chosen by the models. Perhaps the unknown sitter's expression and manner are so much more realistic because she did sit longer than Mrs. Hesketh - which would suggest a much more engaging personality too, even if she couldn't pay as much as Mrs. Hesketh. An interesting contrast: the unknown lady engages us, she looks like someone who would be pleasant and has personality. The identified woman, on the other hand, is as interesting, and as engaged, as the tree behind her.

sibyl said...

I agree with Isabella Bradford/Susan H Scott reading of this painting. It is intentionally sad - the cut off branch suggesting the cutting off of a bough of the family tree, the death perhaps of a child or a husband, the funerary urn with ivy, its evergreen leaves an ancient symbol of eternal life. All confirmed by the melancholy expression of the sitter who seeks solace in her Bible.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

You make good points about an artist wanting to put the sitter at ease. For an 18th c. sitter, being in relatively "informal" clothing carried another, class-conscious message, too - that they HAD the money and leisure to dress this way, and to indulge in a bit of fantasy, too.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

msHedgehog & Elena,
I didn't have an answer to your suggestion that perhaps the artist used stand-in models for his sitter. I know this was a practice at the time, with some sitters leaving their clothing with the artist, too. But I don't specifically know if Joseph Wright is known to have done this.

And so, thanks to the magic of Twitter, I asked someone who would know. Lucy Bamford is the Senior Curator, Fine Art & the Joseph Wright Collection, at the Derby Museum. Her reply:

"Interesting question! Not much is know of Joseph Wright's studio, but given the dismembered appearance of the Derby Museum's "Anne Borrow" (link below), it seems possible. He also kept a stock of studies from his training days in [the painter Thomas] Hudson's studio, including drapery and poses. A single set of entries in the back of his account book (undated) describes the appearance of some local girls, suggesting an intention to use them as models. He clearly worked from life in a lot of cases, and friends modelled."]

Cindy said...

fascinating . Thank you

speaking of portraits Recently we saw the DVD Belle -- a wonderful movie which the screenwriter ceated (if I remember correctly) from having seen a portrait of 2 aristocratic cousins, one white and one mulatto; I thought perhap sit had been a book -- like the ones you write.

msHedgehog said...

This is a very interesting discussion. I am curious about how the process actually worked, from the desire to the result. When you think about the logistics, you can see how very advantageous it would be for the painter to be able to present himself as a gentleman, if possible.

msHedgehog said...

In fact, trying to imagine a plausible workflow makes me very curious about the social positions of painters compared to the various other providers of somewhat intimate and/or prestigious professional services, like dancing-masters, landscape and interior designers, fencing-masters, tutors, and so on. All presumably very different from each other. It seemed unlikely to me that a lady of rank would change clothes in a painter's studio or wear a dress not made for her, although of course she might dress up at home in things she owned. I wonder whether my intuition is correct.

Lauriana said...

I really liked this post and I remembered it yesterday, when I visited the Haags Historisch Museum (Historical Museum of The Hague).
Unfortunately, the website ( ) doesn't have a full English version and it doesn't show many images from the exhibits. I went to see the display "Rivals at the The Hague court" about Elizabeth Stuart (the winter queen) and Amalia of Solms (who started out as her lady-in-waiting and went on the marry stadholder Frederick Henry). There was a large room dedicated to the ladies' competition in fashion and art and this included quite a number of portraits of both, by the same artist at painted at roughly the same time. And they were definitely wearing the same costumes or posing with the same props in some of them. And in the attempt to out-do each other in a display of wealth and style, their own, fashionable dress and jewelry was also often very much alike.

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