About the artwork
Imagine that the older lady on the left of the picture was not there and that the white cloud extended unbroken across the corner space. It was that picture - of two young girls sitting at a harpsichord, a lapdog slumped on a stool, some easily legible sheet music and an awkward sense of something missing – which William Hesketh Lever paid £4520. 5s for in 1918. It was not for another 17 years that an area of over-painting was removed and the head of the older lady revealed.
James Paine was an architect, a friend of Reynolds who had designed a large gallery and painting room, including an extremely elaborate chimney piece, for the artist’s home in Leicester Fields, now Leicester Square. It is thought that this painting and possibly its companion may have been done in exchange for some of that architectural work.
The triple portrait was painted in 1765, as pendant to a double portrait completed by Reynolds the previous year. The earlier picture (now in the Ashmolean, Oxford) showed James Paine and his son of the same name, an architect and sculptor in his own right. The two men are pictured poring over an architectural drawing. This was intended to be hung to the left of the other portrait so that father and son face mother and daughters. Even the sky in the two pictures was intended to match up. In Reynolds’s appointment book there is an entry for a sitting on 17 July 1765: ‘Mrs Pain [sic], Miss Pain and Miss Polly Pain.’ Then, on 25 July, ‘Mrs Paine etc.’ on 2 August ‘Miss Paine’ sat alone, and ‘Mrs Paine’ sat three days later. On 3 October the entry read: ‘Mrs Paine & Co’. There were additional appointments on 27 September, 27 November and 2 December, for ‘Dog.’
Eventually the two pictures became separated. The double portrait passed to the young James Paine and he bequeathed it to Oxford. The triple portrait passed from Mrs Paine to her family, the Beaumonts. It was exhibited in Leeds in 1868 as A Family Group, Lady playing Spinnet. It was engraved in 1878 and exhibited again in Huddersfield in 1883. In due course it was acquired by the dealer C.J Wertheimer and when next exhibited, at Burlington House in 1908, it was catalogued as Portraits of the Misses Paine. The older lady had vanished.
Many reasons might be imagined – usually romantic, even scandalous - for an individual’s features being obliterated from a family group portrait. In this case however it appears to have been purely a matter of age discrimination. As an experienced picture dealer, Wertheimer – almost certainly the villain in this case – knew that a Reynolds picture of two beautiful young girls was worth far more on the open market than a Reynolds picture of two beautiful young girls and an elderly matron. Mrs Paine spoilt Wertheimer’s picture so he had her removed. Fortunately the evidence of the 1878 engraving remained to show the original state of the strangely unbalanced composition. In 1935, the Lady Lever Trustees took the decision to have over a quarter of a century’s over painting removed and thereby restored the picture to what it was when it left Reynolds’s hand.
The harpsichord was built by, Burkat Shudi, one of the most celebrated instrument makers working in London during the 18th Century. It was sold to the Paine family, and kept regularly in tune by the firm of Shudi & Broadwood. The sheet music is a Scottish song by Alan Ramsey, set to an air by Michael Arne:
Oh Sawny why leaves thou thy Nelly to mourn,
Thy presence could ease me,
When naithing could please me,
Now, Dowie, I sigh on the banks of the burn,
Or thro’ the wood laddie until thou return.
Tho’ woods now are bonny, & mornings are clear,
While lav’rocks are singing,
And primroses springing;
Yet nane of them pleases my eyne or my ear,
When thro’ the wood, laddie, ye dinna appear.
That I am forsaken some spare na to tell,
I’m fashed with their scorning,
Baith evening and morning;
Their jeering gaes aft to my heart wi a knell,
When thro’ the wood, laddie, I wander mysell.