Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux, later Countess of Sefton card

Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux, later Countess of Sefton

WAG 8780

On display


Liverpool celebrity Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux, honeymooning in 1768 in fashionable Bath spa, arranges her shawl to show off her elegant hands and presents her good side to society portraitist Thomas Gainsborough. However did he get that sheen on her silk dress? He stood about the same distance from the canvas as you are - and the same distance from Isabella herself - and using a brush at the end of a long stick, painted exactly what he saw - streaks and splodges. Get up close and you'll see what I mean. When you move back again, in the words of rival portraitist Joshua Reynolds this 'uncouth chaos... by a kind of magick... assumes form, and all the parts seem to drop into their proper places...' Reynolds just couldn't understand it - particularly from an artist who was self-taught, as well as eccentric. The dazzling lustre was re-discovered only recently after cleaning. This also revealed Gainsborough's legendary confidence and speed. In a great flourish he first painted the shimmer itself - the white zig-zags - followed by the stripes and black lace details, which give the fabric structure. Gainsborough showcased Isabella in 1769 at the first-ever exhibition of the London Royal Academy, of which Reynolds was president. Up to the left here is a portrait by Reynolds himself, whose artistic experiments were less successful. His flesh-pinks have faded. Gainsborough's way of painting his sitters' features was up close and personal. Having tied his canvas loosely around its support, he placed it right next to their face. First he captured its essence in candlelight. Then, for each new detail, he shifted the canvas slightly on its support so the area he was painting was always as close as possible to the corresponding part of the face itself. An eighteenth century London Morning Chronicle scale of 'Bon Ton' - 'good taste' - compared the attributes of various trend-setting ladies. Isabella scored 14 out of 20 for beauty, but only 4 for sense. She fared rather better than the Countess of Jersey, who scored zero for both sense and principles.