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Mrs Peter Beckford

Joshua Reynolds, 1782

LL 3125

About this object

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.

Object specifics

  • Artist(s)
    Joshua Reynolds (British: English, born:1723-07-16, died:1792-02-23)
  • Date
  • Materials
    Oil paint; Canvas
  • Measurements
    canvas/support: 239 cm x 147 cm
  • Physical description
    A full length portrait of a woman turned to her right, looking towards the viewer. She is central in the composition and stands beside a smoking cauldron on the left which is decorated with a snake. As an offering the woman holds out a drinking vessel with two handles towards a smokey silhouette of a woman that billows from the caldron. Another female figure who is clutching a jug can be seen crouching on the right.
  • Related people
    Susan Euphemia Beckford (Duchess of Hamilton) (Previous owner) ; William Thomas Beckford (Previous owner) ; Gooden and Fox (Previous owner) ; William Hesketh Lever (Previous owner) ; Joshua Reynolds (Artist/maker)
  • Other number(s)
    Accession Number: LL 3125; Out of Use Accession Number: WHL4094
  • Credit line
    Purchased by William Hesketh Lever in 1919
  • Location
    Lady Lever Art Gallery, Room 06
  • Collection
    From the Lady Lever Art Gallery collections


Previous owners

  • William Hesketh Lever

    Owned from: 1919-11-06
    How acquired: Purchased by Gooden and Fox from Christie's 6,800gns
    Owned until: 1925
    Disposal method: Unknown or unrecorded
  • Gooden and Fox

    Owned from: 1919-11-06
    How acquired: Purchased for William Hesketh Lever
    Owned until: 1919-11-06
    Disposal method: Unknown or unrecorded
  • Susan Euphemia Beckford (Duchess of Hamilton)

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: By descent from her father William Beckford
    Owned until: Unknown or unrecorded
    Disposal method: By descent in the collections of Dukes of Hamilton
  • William Thomas Beckford

    Owned from: 1782
    How acquired: Unknown or unrecorded
    Owned until: ?1838
    Disposal method: By descent to his daughter Susan
Object view = Fine Art
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