Most of the portraits I've featured in blog posts have been of adult sitters, but I couldn't resist sharing this charming – and quite stylish – young lady.
She's Lady Mary Beauclerk, the only daughter of the 6th Duke of St. Albans, Aubrey Beauclerk, and his first wife Lady Jane Moses Beauclerk. Lady Mary was only two when she sat for her first portrait, yet clearly she's making a fashion statement.
She's wearing a white muslin gown - standard attire for both young girls and boys at the time – but around her waist is a wide ikat sash that likely was imported from India, or perhaps France. She has little red shoes and a lace-trimmed cap, but the main attraction is that hat.
Hardly an ordinary baby bonnet, her hat appears to made of fine woven straw, lined with white silk, and features a towering crown decked with grey silk ribbons. When I think of how difficult it is to persuade most small children to keep hats on their heads, I wonder how the artist managed to have her pose.
The secret might have been that basket of cherries. Cherries and other fruit often appear in portraits of children in this time. Although the exact meaning in this painting isn't known, they usually symbolize purity, youth, and vitality - although here they also co-ordinate nicely with Lady Mary's red shoes. The basket was a prop from the artist's studio, and appears in at least one more of his portraits with small children, so perhaps the cherries were his way to amuse young sitters.
And no, the cherries don't symbolize an early death. Lady Mary grew up to be an heiress with a sizable fortune of £100,000, and in June of 1811, she married George William Coventry, 8th Earl of Coventry. She had two children, and died at 54 in Naples, Italy. In this portrait, she looks like a little girl with a lot of spirit and personality, which may have been part of her family inheritance, too: her father's dukedom had been created a century before to honor the son of Charles II and his mistress, the famously "pretty, witty" actress Nell Gwyn - who would have been her 6X grandmother.
The artist of this portrait is also interesting, because he was American. James Earl (1761-1796) was born in Leicester, MA, the younger brother of another painter, Ralph Earl (1751-1801). While nothing is known of James's early artistic training, at his brother's urging he traveled to London to study, and remained there for about a decade. There he improved his skill and found great success, including exhibiting at the Royal Academy. He painted the portraits of many of the prominent American Loyalists who had been forced to flee to England by the Revolution, and while he didn't have the lofty titled clientele of Sir Joshua Reynolds or Thomas Gainsborough, painting the daughter of the Duke of St. Albans must have been quite a coup for him – and likely helped him find more status-conscious patrons when he returned to America.
Above: Lady Mary Beauclerk, by James Earl, c. 1793-94. Crystal Bridges Museum Collection, Bentonville, Arkansas.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.