Mrs Frances Hesketh

WAG 10847


The portrait of 'Mrs Frances Hesketh', wife of Fleetwood Hesketh, by Joseph Wright of Derby, was painted in 1769. The sitter wears a gown of dusty pink silk, loosely cut, with a voluminous skirt and deep cuff to the sleeve. This is held back with a string of pearls. Her undersleeve of fine white linen is also generously cut and falls in folds around her forearm. She holds the edge of a thin striped silk scarf, attached at the back of her bodice. Another sash of blue and gold silk is tied around her waist and knotted casually before her. She does not appear to be wearing a hoop, a petticoat supported by circular canes, beneath her gown as the outline of her legs can be clearly seen in the front. Her hair is informally arranged and falls loosely over her right shoulder. The whole ensemble appears charming and elegant to our eyes, yet it is not what Mrs Hesketh's contemporaries would have recognised as strictly fashionable dress. It is, rather, a stylised version of classical dress, a shorthand adopted by the artist to allude to the subject's gentility (as the wife of a landed squire), intellect and artistic leanings. The reference to the ancient world, and to the 18th century's re-discovery of it, is strengthened by the inclusion of a classical urn, on the right. A number of artists adopted this approach, posing their sitters in informal, classically-inspired dress, from the 1760s onwards. In contrast to the clothes worn by Mrs Hesketh, there are many other examples of fashionable dress to be seen in the Walker's 18th century gallery. But what exactly is 'fashionable dress' and how does it differ from other forms of dress? One could define it as a dress form that constantly changes in response to outside influences, often deliberately motivated. This transient quality sets it apart from other forms of dress. Peasant or working dress and traditional or national dress tend to remain static over long periods of time. The wealthy have always used dress as a means of showing their social status and as a way of distinguishing themselves from other sections of society. In this sense, it could be argued that they 'invented' fashion. Its constantly changing forms allowed them to stay one step ahead of other aspiring groups. Today, more complex economic factors and a worldwide industry ensure that fashion constantly changes and that we can all buy into it if we wish. Costume in paintings can be a good source of information about what dress was like in the past. It can also tell us much about the wearer. We can see their wealth, status, social aspirations and if they belonged to a particular group. Equally, it can be revealing about the artist and about what he or she was trying to say about their subject, as we can see in the painting of Mrs Hesketh.