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Mrs Peter Beckford, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

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About the artwork

The lady is Louisa, second daughter of George Pitt, 1st Baron Rivers and married to a Dorset landowner whose principal enthusiasms in life are hunting and dog-breeding. Louisa took little interest in her husband’s pursuits, nor in the literary works for which he would be remembered: Thoughts upon Hare and Fox Hunting and Essays on Hunting, Containing a Philosophical Enquiry into the nature of Scent. ‘She was a creature of a fiercely passionate nature, a spirit all compact of fire’, wrote one commentator, while Peter Beckford ‘was a cynical man of the world with the looseness of principle and the hardness of temper of the typical eighteenth-century “fine gentleman.”’ Their marriage, predictably, was a wreck. But at the time this portrait was painted Louisa was infatuated with her husband’s cousin. William Beckford was the complete antithesis of Peter. Poet, musician, novelist, architect, connoisseur, Gothic and Oriental fantasist, he possessed the fabulous wealth, from his father’s vast Jamaican sugar plantations, to put his ostentatious fantasies into practice. When he travelled in Europe the size of his retinue resulted in his being mistaken for the Austrian Emperor. He celebrated his coming of age in September 1781, with a party costing an unprecedented £40,000.

Mrs Beckford’s intrigue with her husband’s cousin was by no means a simple triangular affair. At first she acted as the confidante and go-between in William Beckford’s homosexual liaison with the teenage son of Viscount Courtenay. Young Courtenay (‘Kitty’ to his friends) was said to be one of the most beautiful boys in England. Louisa, however, soon fell passionately in love with William on her own account. Then in 1783 when, at his family’s instigation, Beckford married Lady Margaret Gordon the quadrilateral of Louisa, Peter, William and ‘Kitty’ Courtenay, became a pentagon. In September 1784, things came to a head at Powderham Castle, Viscount Courtenay’s family seat, when William deserted his pregnant wife’s bed, ‘Kitty’s tutor heard suspicious noises from his pupil’s bedroom and saw something unspeakable through the keyhole, and a compromising letter from Louisa was carelessly dropped and discovered. The ‘Powderham Scandal’ forced William Beckford to live abroad for the next decade and a half. His wife died two years after the scandal broke. 

Louisa’s first sittings for her portrait were in June 1781. The final sittings were in May of the following year. It is thought that visits to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s studio provided the lady with an excuse to come to London and see her lover. Sittings, however, also had to be arranged to coincide with improvements in her health. She was suffering from tuberculosis or ‘consumption’ as it was then called, and there were periods when the condition appeared to go into remission. ‘As my looks are entirely recovered’, she wrote to William Beckford, ‘I intended to sit once or twice to Sir Joshua during my stay in Town, but he is unfortunately gone abroad, so that I must wait until next year when I may perhaps look ill again.’ Reynolds’s composition specifically refers to his subject’s illness. He chose to show her offering a libation at an altar surmounted by a statue of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health.

It is not known who commissioned the portrait but it eventually became the property of William Beckford. ‘Sir Joshua took the greatest pleasure and delight in painting that picture, as it was left entirely to his own refined taste’, he told a visitor many years later. ‘The lady was in ill-health at the time it was done, and Sir Joshua most charmingly conceived the idea of a sacrifice to the Goddess of Health. Vain Hope! Her disorder was fatal.’ Relations with her husband were improved by the long periods they spent in Italy but the Mediterranean climate had a deleterious effect upon her health and she died at Florence in 1791, aged thirty-six.