The mystery of Mrs Wells

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Here's a blog by Sarah Hardy who is helping out at the Lady Lever Art gallery as part of her Art History masters degree. 

Sarah will be giving a talk about Zoffany’s portrait of Robert Badeley at 1pm on Wednesday 23 May 2012.

Painting of a man

Robert Baddeley as Moses in Sheridan's 'The School for Scandal' c1781, by Johann Zoffany (1734/5 – 1810).

I am currently working on a project through my Art History masters degree at the University of Manchester. My task is to write all the labels for three 18th century art and furniture rooms at Lady Lever Art Gallery. So if you come and visit in the near future, the labels you read in rooms 22-24, will have been written by me! 

I am thoroughly enjoying this experience and look forward to my Wednesday visits, when I am let loose on the archives to uncover the history of some incredibly rare and valuable art works. Using this information to tell you the story of our art has been incredibly rewarding.

Sometimes however, this is not such an easy task. The painting Mrs Wells, Wife of Doctor Wells (c.1789) now accredited to John Hamilton Mortimer, is a particular example of why. Whilst Lever bought this painting as a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, its authorship was doubted after the purchase. It was originally accredited to Francis Coates as he had painted a portrait of the same name, which was sold to James Orrock who also purchased the above painting for Lever. 

Recent research showed that Coates would have in fact died by the time it was in fashion for ladies to wear their hair in the style shown in this portrait. The original Christie’s catalogue lead to a paper trail, which revealed that this painting is actually by John Hamilton Mortimer. It is similar to the description of one of the paintings in his 1777 Society of Artists Exhibition. Even with this issue resolved, the identity of Mrs Wells remains a mystery, with no conclusive evidence yet available to show who she is.

Another incredibly exciting project I am working on is researching a portrait of Robert Baddeley in 'The School for Scandal', by Johan Zoffany.  

Zoffany is currently the focus of a Royal Academy exhibition, Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed , themes from which are also covered in my talk. 

It would be lovely to see you at my gallery talk - details are on the website here.