This full-length portrait is characteristic of the works which Reynolds sent to the Royal Academy’s exhibitions of the 1780s. He was President of the Royal Academy at that time. The sitter is Mrs Louisa Beckford (born Louisa Pitt in 1754). She married her Dorset neighbour, the gentleman Peter Beckford, in 1773. Louisa was reportedly of a delicate constitution and Reynolds portrays her making a libation (a drink-offering) to the Greek goddess of health, Hygeia, whose emblem was a snake.
Louisa had little interest in hunting and the rural pursuits which preoccupied her husband. At the time the portrait was painted Louisa Beckford was having a passionate affair with her husband’s cousin, William Thomas Beckford (born 1760, died 1844). It is thought that the sittings were probably planned by an infatuated Louisa as a means of seeing William when he was in London.
Beckford was one of the wealthiest men in England and was infamous for his lavish tastes, his homosexual affairs, and the extravagant parties that took place within his secluded Fonthill Estate. He was the author of the famous Gothic novel ‘Vathek’, which he was inspired to write after hosting an oriental-themed party. Reynolds’s painting, with its gloomy, smoke-filled atmosphere and elaborate play of light and shadow, may owe something to Beckford’s newly fashionable Gothic aesthetic. Though it is unclear whether he commissioned it, Beckford, an avid art collector, owned this portrait from when it was completed in 1782. That same year Louisa was abandoned by Beckford. Increasingly in poor health, she declined in spirits. She died of tuberculosis at Florence on 30 April 1791.
William Beckford was bisexual, but was particularly attracted to male youths. He surrounded himself with attractive young male servants at his estate. At the time of his liaisons with Louisa, he was simultaneously having an affair with a youth, eight years his junior, named William Courtenay. One of the principal characters in ‘Vathek’, the effeminate and beautiful, Prince Gulchenrouz, was modelled upon Courtenay. A huge scandal broke out when Lord Loughborough (the youth’s uncle) published his letters to Courtenay. Beckford escaped punishment, but went into exile in Europe, along with his long-suffering wife.