Rosa Carriera (born in 1671, died in 1757) came from an artistic Venetian family. Her father was an amateur artist and her mother an embroiderer and lace-maker. She started by painting miniature portraits on snuff-boxes but moved to life-size portraits in pastel, for which she became internationally renowned. So great was the demand for her work among British visitors that she once complained of ‘being attacked by the English.’
She was often visited by British aristocrats on the Grand Tour, such as the author and collector Horace Walpole (born in 1717, died in 1797). He visited the artist and sat for this portrait in 1741.
This pastel is very similar to another of Walpole that Carriera made together with a companion portrait of Lord Lincoln. Walpole biographer Timothy Mowl, presents the pair of portraits of the men, wearing matching coats, as evidence that they were lovers. It was unusual for men to have their portraits drawn in matching attire.
Throughout his life, and since his death, there has been significant speculation about Walpole’s sexual orientation. Walpole never married, and was rumoured to have been romantically infatuated with not only Lord Lincoln but also, the poets Thomas Gray (born in 1716, died in 1771) and Richard West (born in 1716, died in 1742) and the British General Henry Seymour Conway (1721 – 9 July 1795).
In his own lifetime, Walpole was often assumed to have been ‘a lover of men’ due to his perceived effeminacy and camp mannerisms. The writer, William Guthrie (born in 1708, died in 1770), for example, described him as ‘by nature maleish, by disposition female’ and remarked that it would ‘very much puzzle a common observer to assign him to his true sex’. Elsewhere, the novelist, Laetitia Hawkins (baptised August 1759, died November 1835), commented that Walpole ‘always entered a room in that style of affected delicacy which fashion had then made almost natural… knees bent, and feet on tiptoe as if afraid of a wet floor’. The historian, Rictor Norton, notes that the link between effeminacy and homosexuality may have arisen because it was common practice, at that time, for men to attend Vauxhall dressed as woman in order to ‘pick up’ other men. He argues that the stereotypes that were seen to indicate homosexuality were remarkably similar in 1750 and 1950.
Historians have acknowledged the difficulty in finding evidence to ‘prove’ Walpole’s sexuality. Norton suggests that there is evidence in Walpole’s letters that he was a' celibate homosexual'. He argues that Walpole may have supressed his homosexuality due to fear of prosecution for sodomy and social persecution. Walpole’s brother Edward was prosecuted for sodomy in the courts and subsequently became a recluse. He argues that when Walpole writes to a young man named John Crauford ‘I can go no further I have taken the veil’ he is declaring his vow to remain celibate. They have instead focused on highlighting the expressions of same-sex desire and eroticism found in his novels, letters and the phallic architecture of his gothic house, Strawberry Hill.