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History of Gainsborough's 'Viscountess Folkestone'

people in a grand room of a house with timber panelling and paintings on the walls and a long, highly polished, dining table

A roleplayer dressed as George Holt talking to visitors in the dining room at Sudley House. The portrait of Viscountess Folkestone is hanging on the right. Photograph © Simon Webb

The portrait of Viscountess Folkestone was painted around 1778, after Gainsborough had left Bath and established a studio in London. There are no surviving documents relating to the commission, although we know she had been a widow for nearly twenty years and that around the same time Gainsborough was commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts to paint a posthumous portrait of her husband.

In 1895 Gainsborough’s portrait of Viscountess Folkestone was described by William Agnew (the London picture dealer) as being unlined and to have never been varnished. He goes on to say

"As far as my experience goes, it is absolutely unique in condition... the most perfect masterpiece I know."

The following year the painting was purchased by George Holt for 3000 guineas making it by far his most expensive acquisition.

Along with the contents of Holt’s home, Sudley House, the portrait was bequeathed to the City of Liverpool in 1947 by his daughter, Emma Holt, and so entered the collections of National Museums Liverpool.

By April 1956 the painting was considered to have been so ‘badly cleaned at some past time’ that varnish removal would not be prudent; exploratory cleaning tests made at the time were photographed and then completely concealed. Therefore it was with some trepidation that further cleaning tests were made in 2005.