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.