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'Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux' talk transcript

Paul O'Keeffe: Hello. Welcome to the picture of the month which is Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux, later the Countess of Sefton. Just a word about Gainsborough to start with. Gainsborough, born in Sudbury in Suffolk. And Sudbury in Suffolk thrived on the clothing trade. His family was in wool. This becomes significant later on. Well, not the wool but the clothing trade.

You’re looking at Isabella Stanhope. She was the second daughter of the second Earl of Harrington. She’s just got married. She’s married in November 1768. She’s only 19 or 20 – we can’t be absolutely sure how old she is but 19 or 20 or just on the cusp between. This picture is assumed to have been commissioned to celebrate her marriage to Charles William who was the Viscount Molyneux. He was only one year older than Isabella so he’s about 20 or 21, and he’s soon to become the first Earl of Sefton.

Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire - of whom there was a film made recently which I never saw - great wit and a woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly, she wrote of the couple ten yeas after their marriage, so they’re now early 30s:

“Lord and Lady Sefton arrived just before supper. Lord Sefton is the most disagreeable and noisy of fools. As for her, she is a compound of vanity, nonsense, folly and good nature. For though many people deny her the last qualification, I am sure she possesses it, only she always contrives to put her faults in the clearest light. Of all women I ever knew she is the soonest affronted, and the soonest appeased. And if she really likes any person she’ll fight through thick and thin for them.”

So a good egg! She seems nice. She’s vain but then you would be having just married the future Earl of Sefton.

The picture was exhibited in the following spring – the spring of 1769 – in Pall Mall. The exhibition was significant; it was the first annual exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts. Very, very new organisation. The Royal Academy of Arts. President, Joshua Reynolds. [points] That’s by Joshua Reynolds over there. This is the very first exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts. They had rooms in Pall Mall at the time. They were shortly to move to purpose built accommodation in Somerset House. It appeared in the catalogue of the first exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, as ‘Portrait of a lady. Whole length’. And that’s all. ‘Portrait of a lady. Whole length’. At this time Royal Academy catalogues were incredibly boring because portraits were never identified – it was seen to be a bit vulgar. If you had your portrait painted and then you had the portrait hung on the wall in public it was seen as a bit in for a dig really to be identified, so if you look at the early Royal Academy catalogues it’s a whole catalogue of ‘portrait of a gentleman’, ‘portrait of a gentleman’, ‘portrait of a lady’, ‘portrait of a bishop’, ‘portrait of a noble lady’ and so on. So it’s catalogued as ‘Portrait of a lady. Whole length’. Now, at this time you could get your portrait painted in several lengths like dress lengths really. Whole length you’ve got the size of life and the feet into the bargain. You’d also have half length where they cut you off at the waist. And three quarter length where they cut you off at the knees. This is a whole length and it’s big – the size of life – and it’s intended for a great room. A large room where it can be viewed at a suitable distance.

We know that this picture is of Isabella, Countess Molyneux because Horace Walpole in his copy of the catalogue of 1769 wrote alongside it, ‘Lady Molyneux’. The whole point about the anonymity in these catalogues, everybody who visited the exhibition would probably have known them socially and would have recognised them, so that’s another reason why they were never identified – because everybody knew them. This held good right into the 19th century, so that when Benjamin Robin Haydon painted his big picture of the Duke of Wellington and his horse Copenhagen viewing the field of Waterloo which is in store in Liverpool, it was exhibited as ‘The hero and his horse’, not ‘Wellington and Copenhagen’ because everyone knew who the man with the big nose was. So Horace Walpole wrote in his catalogue ‘Lady Molyneux’ and along side he wrote ‘ungraceful’. Don’t know what he meant by that but ‘ungraceful’ he put alongside.

Elsewhere there was very little said about that exhibition, the first exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1769. This was at a time when there was no such thing as art journalism. If an exhibition was described or announced in The Times for instance, there wouldn’t be an art critic who would be sent along to criticise and describe. So the early references in the newspapers to the Royal Academy exhibitions are very, very slight, and we only have two. The Lloyds Evening Post said, “This picture is one of a number that have this season chiefly attracted the attention of the connoisseurs of the Royal Academy”. It’s not cutting edge art criticism really. It’s just one of the pictures that is chiefly attracting the attentions of the connoisseurs of the Royal Academy. The St James Chronicle said, “It is one of the few to which connoisseurs might profitably direct their attention”, which if you think about it is as much as to say ‘it’s the best of a bad lot’, but that’s what art criticism was like at the time.

In 1759 Gainsborough moved from the east to the west. He moved from Ipswich where he was living at the time, to Bath, and he stayed in Bath from 1759 to 1774. It was this period that really marked the period when Gainsborough really came into his own. He entered his prime if you like. This portrait of Lady Molyneux was the grandest, by far the grandest female portrait he had painted up to that date. Now, it’s thought one reason why this move to Bath turned Gainsborough from a good painter into a remarkable painter was the proximity of a lot of Van Dyck paintings. The key thing to remember about Gainsborough is he believed that Van Dyck was god! Van Dyck - 17th century, Gainsborough - 18th century. But Van Dyck’s influence on the 18th and 19th century portraiture was immense. The significance of Gainsborough in Bath, he would have been close to several private collections that had major paintings by Van Dyck there, notably Longford Castle and Wilton House. Wilton House has a huge picture of the fourth Earl of Pembroke and his family by Van Dyck. It contains ten figures. It’s the biggest picture by Van Dyck that Van Dyck ever painted. It’s a huge thing and it’s got ten figures the size of life and several cherubs up in the corner into the bargain. Really, you can imagine Gainsborough going to see that at Wilton House and getting umpteen lessons of how to paint portraits. The actual statuesque quality, this full size, proud statuesque figure here – notice you are actually looking at her from below but Gainsborough would also have been looking at her from slightly below as well. One of the things he did in Bath was he raised his sitters platform a few inches but significantly in just the same way as Van Dyck did. Van Dyck painted his sitters from just a little below them so that you are always looking up at them, so it creates this wonderful statuesque quality. It’s not absolutely significant but notice the level of the horizon – the lowness of the horizon. The lower the horizon, the lower the view point, so that’s significant. We’re actually looking up at her. And she’s got to be placed on the wall even higher so she looks even more impressive.

There was another thing he had in common with Van Dyck. Van Dyck came from a clothing background. His family was in the clothing trade. It’s been suggested that Gainsborough and Van Dyck had this fascination with drapery and with clothing in common. Gainsborough painted his drapery. Other people at the time wouldn’t bother – they’d get somebody else in to do that and concentrate on the face. Gainsborough painted every inch of his canvases.

Gainsborough was very, very partial to Van Dyck to put it mildly. He said of one exhibition, The Society of Arts exhibition of 1776 – this was the forerunner, the only artistic society that existed before the establishment of the Royal Academy. He said of one exhibition there, “There is certainly a false taste and an impudent style prevailing which if Van Dyck was living would put him out of countenance”. So Van Dyck, the master, would not have been pleased.

The pose there, this left hand at the breast, that was one of Van Dyck’s signature features in his portraiture. Also, arguably this arm here gives the thing a bit of action, a bit of motion. She’s got this shawl and she is in the process of drawing it round her, so there’s almost a movement there. There’s a certain swagger about the whole thing, coupled with the fact that she’s life size, painted from below and looked up to. It’s just occurred to me, one of the reasons why people in Cambridge and Oxford do all their courting in punts – I noticed this. I was invited by a girl one summer in Cambridge. She said, “We’ll take a punt”, and she’d been to Cambridge and was punting. And I was lying back, you see, and she looked astonishing! I remember it to this day. It was a sunny day. Aah yes! The extraordinary thing was, seen from below she looked superb. She looked like an Amazon. She punted up the river and I punted back, and I was thinking, “My god I must look good!” [laughter] That’s the effect of looking at a model or a portrait from below.

Van Dyck of course had a tremendous influence, even into the mid 19th century you still had painters painting their subjects sometimes wearing Van Dyck costume – they called it Van Dyck costume – anything with a big collar and velvet, and puffy sleeves. And it was a Van Dyck collar, a Van Dyck costume, and in the 18th century a lot of painters would paint their subject in Van Dyck costume. The costume in fact of 100 years before because it looked so good. In this case she’s not. This is contemporary costume but if you go a year on, the year after this you’ve got a picture of Jonathan Buttall. We know Jonathan Buttall as the boy in blue, ‘The Blue Boy’ by Gainsborough. ‘The Blue Boy’ is in Van Dyck costume - blue breeches, blue doublet. This blue Van Dyck costume appears in so many of Gainsborough’s paintings, worn by different people that he obviously had it in his painting room, and he was obviously, “put this on, see what it looks like”. ‘The Blue Boy’ costume appears several times, and that is Van Dyck from a previous century.

The fact that Gainsborough is here painting Lady Molyneux in contemporary dress does suggest that he was his own man and he wasn’t completely enthralled to Van Dyck. Another thing that he’s put in that Van Dyck would not necessarily have done would be this hint of landscape background. Another thing that was his own device was the use of quite a warm background – they’re warm colours, lovely browns and there’s a lot of yellow there. He actually painted on an orange ground which was unique at the time. Nobody else did, and he would cover the canvas, prime the canvas with orange and so the background would be very, very warm. The foreground however, the figure in the centre of the picture is dressed in very, very cold colours. It’s white and blue, pale blue silk. Blue traditionally a cold colour, and you’d expect cold colours to recede and warm to come forward. In this way the entire opposite applies, and it was the same thing young Jonathan Buttall, the year after. He is in blue, a cold colour, the background is very, very warm.

A lot has been written about how Gainsborough painted, and I’ve managed to put together a sort of stage by stage account. It sounds very, very odd but he was practically self taught. Unlike Joshua Reynolds and a lot of the painters at the time, Gainsborough never went abroad. He never went to Italy for instance. If you were a serious painter you went to Italy to gain a bit of polish, to study the old masters of the renaissance. Gainsborough didn’t. He had no pretensions to being a history painter as they were called; a painter of mythological, biblical, historical subjects – high art. Portraiture was always just lower in the pecking order but Gainsborough actually carved his own niche in portrait painting and arguably he was a far better portrait painter than Joshua Reynolds, his chief rival. At least Gainsborough got the colours of the face right rather than Joshua Reynolds who painted in fugitive colours like carmine and lake and flying colours, they called them. Joshua Reynolds’s flying colours, and so they faded like that. Viscountess Molyneux here has the rosy cheeks she was first painted with because he presumably used something like vermillion for the flesh tones which doesn’t fade.

So, as a result of not having any very, very formal training as a painter he developed a lot of eccentric techniques of painting, and it’s said that with a painting like this - a large whole length picture - he would start out by laying in the whole composition and the broad outlines, and getting the likeness of the face in what was described as a sort of darkened twilight. He would cut out most of the natural light into his painting room and he would paint very, very close up to the subject using candles to throw a sort of directional light onto the features of the sitter. It’s thought that he did this so at that early stage, when he was trying to capture a likeness, he wouldn’t be distracted by detail. He’d just get the broad, almost caricatural features of the face.

If you were painting a picture like that, see that one over there where it’s almost just a head and shoulder [pointing]. It’s a small picture so what you could do in this darkened condition is place the canvas right next to the sitter’s face, and paint within a couple of feet so you could actually see both the canvas and the subject’s face. With a bigger picture like this it was more difficult because it’s a bigger piece of canvas and you can’t get the face close enough to the real face. So what he did, and I still haven’t really fathomed this out, but what we’re told is that instead of having the canvas actually nailed to the stretcher he would have it loose on the stretcher and tied round the back with thin cords. So he could then shift the entire canvas so that the face would appear at the edge of the stretcher, and then he’d tie if off loosely at the back so that the face would be here and he could move the entire canvas on an easel right next to the sitter, and then paint by candlelight in the practically dark studio, very, very close – one to one. Having got that all important likeness with the first laying in of the picture, and incidentally he worked very quickly. He didn’t keep his sitters hanging around for long. It would probably take two sittings to actually get the features. You’d have one sitting where you were sitting in the dark with this enormous great canvas on an easel right next to you and there’s Gainsborough painting away closer. Then it would be moved back and then with a bit more light he would then paint a more detailed glaze over the whole thing, and he would get the likeness better and improve it and finish it. One sitter said his entire portrait took an hour and forty minutes, another said he wasn’t there above 15 minutes. The man whose portrait was painted in 15 minutes was an old friend of Gainsborough so he was probably working that much faster because he was more familiar with the man’s features.

The third stage would be the overall finish of the costume. You shouldn’t imagine Lady Molyneux standing there with her shawl, posed like that, and wearing her dress – well she would be wearing a dress of course [laughter] but she would be sitting there just to have her portrait painted. And then she would leave the dress, or leave a dress that she wanted to be seen in, with Gainsborough and Gainsborough would either get a lay model in of about the same size, or he would put it on a figure that would be a life size articulated, sometimes stuffed dummy. Gainsborough had a very, very expensive lay figure with brass joints apparently. And then he would paint the costume itself which was, I suppose, quite unusual because as I said earlier, a lot of painters wouldn’t have bothered to paint the actual drapery. They’d get a clothes man to do that or a drapery man.

And here’s the clever bit. If you look at this picture very, very closely the actual surface of the paint is very roughly done. It’s a white silk dress, and the highlights which give it that sheen which identifies it as silk are just white, sloshed on any old how. Looked at from this distance [stands very close], and I suspect from this distance as well [take a step back], it’s very, very rough. But go further back and the whole thing comes together, and Gainsborough was very, very proud of this technique he’d developed and he was practically the only painter at that time who was painting in this way. We have an eyewitness, or several to say how he did it.
“I was much surprised to see him sometimes paint portraits with pencils…” now, by pencil he means, brushes. In the 18th century the brush was called a pencil, so a painter would call his work ‘the work of my pencil’ but it’s not an HB, it’s an actual brush.
“He would paint portraits with pencils on sticks, four, six feet in length.” So he’s actually over there [points about 3 metres away] painting this with a stick with a brush on the end and his method of using them was this. According to the eye witness he placed himself and his canvas at a right angle with the sitter, and by the sitter we assume it’s either the model wearing Lady Molyneux’s dress or the lay figure, so that he could stand still in front of his canvas and he touched the features of his picture at exactly the same distance at which he viewed the sitter. Yes? Does that make sense? So, he’s there [walks to a spot about 3 metres away], the sitter is about here [moves 3 metres] and he’s looking at the sitter [points to a third spot] and he’s actually painting the picture at the optimal distance it should be viewed from. So ideally, if you work this out, although the eye witness is not precise about the length of this stick he says about six foot [2 metres], so you imagine six foot with a brush about another foot. So imagine about seven foot is about the best place from which to view this picture, then the whole thing comes into its own.

Two years after Gainsborough died his old rival, Joshua Reynolds, devoted the fifteenth of his lectures – Joshua Reynolds introduced the idea of professors of painting at the Royal Academy giving discourses, lectures to the students, and Joshua Reynolds gave, during his presidency, a number of these - and the fifteenth of them was all about Gainsborough. And it’s a very, very interesting lecture because it’s part eulogy – this great genius that our society had lost – and partly he could not understand or accept that a man who could paint with all these sploshes could be a serious painter. He mentions other things, other eccentricities about Gainsborough. Gainsborough painted a number of landscapes as well, as well as these bits of landscape backgrounds [points to the painting]. According to Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough brought from the fields, brought into his painting room stumps of trees, weeds and animals of various kinds. There’s another eye witness saw Gainsborough in his room painting pigs – there were about three or four pigs running around and he was trying to paint them. He would bring in stumps of trees, weeds and animals and design them, not from memory, but immediately from the objects. You don’t actually go out and paint the landscape; you bring it home with you. He even framed a kind of model landscape on his table, composed of broken stones, dried herbs and pieces of looking glass which he magnified and improved into rocks, trees and water. So he’d actually create on a table a whole landscape. Another witness reported these miniature landscapes were composed of cork or pieces of coal for the foreground. Sand, clay, bushes of mosses and lichens were the middle ground, and here’s the clever bit – broccoli for the distant woods [laughs]. You can just imagine it – a clump of broccoli is an oak tree.

And as for this extraordinary abstract quality of his fabric painting, I reckon if you were to take a detail of that and put it into one of the Sunday supplements saying ‘identify the picture’, people would be writing in saying ‘Jackson Pollock’. But Joshua Reynolds had this to say about his peculiarity of manner and style:

“The peculiarity of his manner or style has been considered by many as his greatest defect. A novelty and peculiarity …”

And this is Joshua Reynolds struggling here. He’s struggling between admiration and envy.

“…A novelty and peculiarity of manner as is so often a cause of our approbation, so likewise it is often a ground of censure, and being contrary to the practice of other painters in whose manner we have been initiated, and in whose favour we have been prepossessed since our infancy…”

It’s what we are used to.

“Fond as we are of novelty we are upon the whole creatures of habit. However, it is certain that all these odd scratches and marks which on a closer examination are so observable in Gainsborough’ pictures, and which even to experienced painters appear rather the effect of accident than design, this chaos, this uncouth and shapeless appearance by a kind of magic at a certain distance assumes form, and all the parts seem to drop into their proper places so that we can hardly refuse acknowledging the full effect of diligence and of the appearance of chance and hasty negligence”.

So it appears negligent but is in fact very, very artful.

Gainsborough himself considered this “peculiarity in his manner” and the power it possesses of “exciting surprise” as a beauty in his works”. So he actually considered this a real plus, a beauty in his work. “I think this may be inferred”, says Joshua Reynolds, “from the eager fire which we know he always expressed, that his pictures at the exhibition should be seen near as well as at a distance.” So presumably Gainsborough would insist on taking people up and saying “look at that. Look at it closely, now go back further, a bit further, yes.” And it’s a magic trick. So it was something of which he was inordinately proud.

I’ve over run. I’m terribly sorry. One last thing about Gainsborough and Van Dyck. It’s said that his last words on his death bed – he was probably going in and out of consciousness - and he said, “We’re all going to heaven, and Van Dyck is of the party”. Some spoil sport who was there at the time said, “No he didn’t say that, but what he did say was ‘Van Dyck was right’”.

Thank you. [applause]