Saturday, March 13, 2010

Scandalous Women welcomes Guest Blogger Jo Manning


Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome Guest Blogger Jo Manning. Jo Manning is the author of two Regency romances, The Reluctant Guardian and Seducing Mr. Heywood (a Booklist Ten Best Romances of the Year selection), and The Sicilian Amulet, a contemporary romance. She was also the founder and director of the Reader's Digest General Books Library for over twenty years. Manning divides her time between London and Miami Beach. My Lady Scandalous is her first work of nonfiction.


On the 20th of May I will be at the Dr Johnson House Museum in London giving a talk on three prominent 18th-century artists and their favorite models.

This presentation is an outgrowth of the research I undertook on the London art scene when I was writing My Lady Scandalous, the biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, a famous courtesan (Simon & Schuster, 2005). I focused on three portraitists: Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney. There were points of congruence amongst all of them, but also some points of divergence, which made them fascinating to me. Their relationships with the women whom I believed were their favorite sitters was/is also fascinating and worthy, I think, of a dissertation. This is just scratching the surface




Frick Collection portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1782, when Grace was newly pregnant with the child she claimed was the daughter of the Prince of Wales

Grace Elliott was painted twice by Gainsborough (who was a great landscape artist as well as a portraitist), and I have seen sketches for a possible third portrait in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery. This wonderful portrait-bust graces (pun intended!) the cover of my book, and I believe it shows what a beauty she really was, contrary to Gainsborough’s other – and perhaps more famous – portrait of her. A full-length portrait executed in what critics describe as in the style of Van Dyck, it shows her tall, beautiful figure to great advantage in a splendid gold silk gown but her profile is positively haggish, making her look more like Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz) rather than Princess Diana of Wales, whom I believe she greatly resembled.
Portraits by leading painters such as Gainsborough did not come cheaply. In today’s currency, his paintings were roughly in the $30-40,000 range. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was probably Gainsborough’s only serious rival in London, charged Grace’s French lover, the Duc d’Orleans, 250 Guineas (about $40,000) for a full-length portrait. (According to Orleans’ biographer, that fee was “considered dear by Philippe’s friends in England.” Since he was the richest man in France, however, perhaps Reynolds thought he could get away with padding his bill slightly.)


The painting is exquisite; the modeling of Grace’s face much less so

That one of England’s most prominent artists painted this courtesan showed she was highly regarded by her lover(s). (By comparison, I noted a long time ago that the notorious Harriette Wilson never sat for a portrait. There are courtesans…and then there are prostitutes…and there is a difference.) Who paid for these expensive Gainsborough portraits? Probably her longtime paramour Lord Cholmondeley; Prinny, alas, was a cheapskate when it came to his women.
There were a lot of painters working in 18th-century England. Definitive figures, however, are impossible to verify. In a letter of Horace Walpole’s, he gave the number 20,000, which seems excessively – if not ridiculously -- high to me; James Northcote (a student of Reynolds’ and later his biographer) estimated the number of painters in London to be 800, which seems rather more reasonable, but, again, hard to verify. Look at these figures against the growing population of London – approaching a million during this period – and the movement of artists to the big city from all over England – as well as the continent -- to make their fortunes. (None of the three painters in this discussion were London-born.)



Alfred Drury’s sculpture of Reynolds in the Burlington House courtyard is festooned with a garland of fresh flowers every year on the painter’s birthday


Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was knighted by King George III in 1769, a year after he became the first president of the Royal Academy; in 1784 he became the official Court Painter. He was one of eleven children of a Devon schoolmaster; his was not a privileged upbringing and there were no artists in his family. (He shared this last with Gainsborough and Romney; there were no artists in any of their families.) Reynolds traveled to Italy to study, as did many painters of the time, and settled in London in 1753, becoming the dominant portraitist of his time.


Sir William Chambers attempting to slay the 8-headed hydra of an RA rival, the Incorporated Society of Artists! Chambers, an architect and one of the original founding members – like Reynolds – of the RA – was the builder of Somerset House

Some 3,000+ paintings have been attributed to Reynolds. It was said of him that he could complete a face in 3-4 hours of sittings. (A sitting usually lasted one hour.) He was a workaholic who often had up to five sittings a day, and he was even known to work on Sundays. A gregarious, generous, friendly fellow and a popular host, he interacted with the capitol’s literary, political, and artistic intelligentsia in an informal group was dubbed “The” Club. There was no Mrs. Reynolds. His sister Fanny was his first housekeeper; her daughter Mary, his niece, succeeded her. In appearance, Reynolds was neither handsome nor physically striking. He was about 5’6” with dark brown curls, a florid complexion, and large features; his face was broad and scarred by smallpox; the bridge of his nose was slightly dented and his upper lip was disfigured (the results of falling off a horse). Nonetheless, he was not considered ugly. One contemporary described his appearance as that of a “well-born and well-bred English gentleman,” though, of course, he was neither. He had a sense of humor, was a good conversationalist, and noted for his politeness and good manners. He never lost his Devonshire accent.




Reynolds painted himself in an homage to Rembrandt circa 1780
I could only find two Reynolds detractors among the many in his circle: Hester Thrale Piozzi, who called him “lukewarm,” and his niece Mary, who said after his death that he was “a gloomy tyrant.” It’s possible that Reynolds was lukewarm to Piozzi, hence her statement; Mary probably expected to be left more in his will than he did. These detractors – and my speculation aside -- the point is that Reynolds was arguably one of the most highly regarded of men in London. Encomiums galore! An aside on the Royal Academy…it became (and still is) the established society for artists, marginalizing other established groups. Its success was rooted in its royal patronage, the well-regarded school it ran, its huge and well-attended exhibitions, and through its promotion of art appreciation throughout the country. It fostered national standards of taste. A member of the RA – those initials appended after the name of the member -- was able to command higher fees than other artists and this is true even today.


Some 3,000+ paintings have been attributed to Reynolds. It was said of him that he could complete a face in 3-4 hours of sittings. (A sitting usually lasted one hour.) He was a consummate workaholic who often had up to five sittings a day, and he was even known to work on Sundays. (His sitters books – the record of his clients -- are voluminous.)




A gregarious, generous, friendly fellow and a popular host, he interacted with the capitol’s literary, political, and artistic intelligentsia in an informal group dubbed “The” Club. There was no Mrs. Reynolds. His sister Fanny was his first housekeeper; her daughter Mary, his niece, succeeded her. In appearance, Reynolds was neither handsome nor physically striking. He was about 5’6” with dark brown curls, a florid complexion, and large features; his face was broad and scarred by smallpox; the bridge of his nose was slightly dented and his upper lip was disfigured (the results of falling off a horse). Nonetheless, he was not considered ugly. One contemporary described his appearance as that of a “well-born and well-bred English gentleman,” though, of course, he was neither. He had a sense of humor, was a good conversationalist, and well noted for his politeness and good manners. He never lost his Devonshire accent.


I could only find two Reynolds detractors among the many in his circle. Dr. Johnson’s good friend Hester Thrale Piozzi wrote of him, “His temper was too frigid; his pencil too warm…,” summarizing his character as “lukewarm” at best. Reynolds’ niece Mary said after his death that he was “a gloomy tyrant.” It’s possible Reynolds was particularly lukewarm to the outspoken Piozzi, hence her statement; Mary probably was unhappy because she was left less in her uncle’s will than she expected. These detractors – and my speculation aside -- the point is that Reynolds was arguably one of the most highly regarded of men in London. Encomiums galore abounded.


As I mentioned, there was no Mrs. Reynolds, and therein lies more speculation. Reynolds liked women, but particularly actresses, courtesans and those in-between. Dan Cruickshank, in his provocative book The Secret History of Georgian London, commented: “Clearly Reynolds loved to execute full-size portraits of prostitutes and actresses…women relatively relaxed within their own bodies. There is wit and warmth in these works – the feeling that artist and sitter were sharing a conspiratorial joke and almost subversively mocking the hypocritical ethos of the age, that they were intimate in spirit if not in the flesh.” He adds, “These portraits are painted with evident affection, and none more so than the series of Kitty Fisher…[she] liberated Reynolds’ imagination, stimulated his creativity, inspired his admiration and was a muse to him in the true antique manner.”
I am not alone in noting the obvious affection for this particular woman among those he painted. She was arguably his favorite sitter. Were they lovers? Again, Reynolds never married, though it was widely believed he had affairs with his favorite models, but this is speculative. From studying the portraits of his favorites, I am willing to go along with the affairs-with-his-models theory, but there’s also a minority opinion he may have been gay. There’s absolutely no evidence for the latter. So, then, why did he not marry one of these women? Marriage was the norm in those days. If I had to guess, though, it would be that the workaholic painter had time for affairs but none for a longer relationship with one woman, despite evidence of affection with more than one of them; he was married to his work.




The biographer of Dr. Johnson, James Boswell, once quoted Reynolds as saying “the reason he would never marry was that every woman whom he liked had grown indifferent to him, and he had been glad he did not marry her.” An interesting remark, if not slightly defensive in tone. Was he unable, then, to pay the requisite amount of attention to one special female? It’s possible; he was surrounded by some very beautiful, vivacious, and interesting women. It may have been hard to settle for just one and they may have grown tired of waiting for him to make up his mind.



In my slide presentation I say that Reynolds’ favorite female sitters embodied beauty, courage, and panache, as well as a whiff or two of scandal. In the Tate Britain exhibition of several years ago, Joshua Reynolds, The Creation Of Celebrity, his portraits were divided into seven categories, one of which was Painted Women. This grouping comprised the afore-mentioned actresses and courtesans and among them are his most famous and evocative renderings.
Let’s look at Kitty Fisher. Kitty Fisher (?-1767) – aka Catherine Maria Fischer -- had a luminous beauty, lovingly captured by Reynolds’ brush. She was one of the most celebrated courtesans of her day, and Kitty Fisher anecdotes abound. How many courtesans are immortalized in nursery rhymes?

Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it;

But ne’er a penny was there in’t;

Except the binding round it…
(A “pocket” is slang for a protector, a lover, in other words.)


Cleopatra Dissolving The Pearl
Born to working-class parents in London, Kitty was said to be intelligent, vivacious, and kind. (Also fluent in French.) At one time she was said to have been supported by a number of aristocrats and gentlemen who were members of Arthur’s, a men’s club. Reynolds painted at least seven portraits of Kitty, according to a tally made after his death. (There were probably more; some may have been misidentified.) Each one is lovelier than the one before, and among them are Kitty Fisher As Cleopatra Dissolving The Pearl (1759), and Kitty with Reynolds’ pet parrot in her hand, circa 1763-4. The latter was not commissioned. (Most of his paintings of Kitty were uncommissioned.) This painting was in his private collection and left unfinished.
The portrait of Kitty as Cleopatra alludes, perhaps to the anecdote attributed to her of having eaten a hundred-pound-note between two slices of bread. (This anecdote has figures ranging from 20 pounds to one hundred.) Dissolving pearls, eating money… These things do lend to a girl’s allure! One critic drew attention to the irregular oval Kitty makes with her thumb and forefinger, saying it is meant to be a vulva. Indeed, the sexually-charged portraits of Kitty Fisher (the Cleopatra is especially languorous) – and the engravings made from these paintings -- only added to her immense celebrity. “Fishermania” was rife in London; young women copied her style of dress; journalists wrote obscene verses to her, and her images saturated the print shops.



Kitty and Reynolds’ pet parrot
The portrait of Kitty as Cleopatra alludes, perhaps to the anecdote attributed to her of having eaten a hundred-pound-note between two slices of bread. Dissolving pearls, eating money… These things do lend to a girl’s allure! Indeed, the sexually-charged portraits of Kitty Fisher (the Cleopatra is especially languorous) – and the engravings made from these paintings -- only added to her immense celebrity. “Fishermania” was rife in London; young women copied her style of dress; journalists wrote obscene verses to her, and her images saturated the print shops.



Nathaniel Hone portrait of Kitty Fisher, her cat, and the goldfish bowl

Another famous portrait of her – among many -- was by Nathaniel Hone, another member of the RA, shows Kitty’s reflection in a goldfish bowl, alluding to her celebrity status. I include it, though it’s not by Reynolds, because I love the conceit (the second meaning, an ingenious thought) at play. It’s hard to see here, but there are faces of a crowd of people looking in through her window. She is in the goldfish bowl, though not physically in it, and the fishing cat is a play on her name. (Everything means something in a portrait, as noted in the vulva comment above. The parrot is considered a lascivious bird.) Hone’s portrait is beautiful, but note how much softer Reynolds’ brush strokes on the other two paintings are, how much more ethereal and dreamlike he makes Kitty seem.
One dour and skeptical critic speculated that what went on between Fisher and Reynolds was not a love affair at all, but a cold-blooded business arrangement, and that it should not be romanticized. Both the artist and the courtesan earned a good deal of money having these portraits printed and sold in the print shops, this individual asserted, and that was the sum total of their relationship: the money to be made. That Reynolds never finished the parrot painting, however, painted it for himself, and kept it himself for the rest of his life, suggests to me that he might really have had a soft spot in his heart for his lovely sitter, if not actually engaged in a sexual relationship with her. Kitty Fisher, by this time a wealthy woman, would die in 1767, four months to two years – it’s unclear -- after her marriage to the MP John Norris and her move out of London to his country home. (Various causes have been bruited about for her untimely death: the white lead in her cosmetics; smallpox; and tuberculosis.) Reynolds could have made money – if that was indeed his only motive for painting Kitty Fisher – by selling this canvas and having hundreds of prints made from it. He did not. And one other thing has to be considered. Kitty Fisher and her ilk were not so far removed from Reynolds’ class, his upbringing. They had more in common than he did with all the society women he painted.
Jo's series will continue over the next few weeks. You can still purchase Jo's book My Lady Scandalous from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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