Thomas Lawrence: Margaret, Countess of Blessington (P558)
It is not always recognized that, although the Wallace Collection is famous for its wonderful array of French and Dutch paintings, it also contains an outstanding group of portraits by three of the greatest names in English art – Gainsborough, Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). Undoubtedly one of the most appealing of these portraits is Lawrence’s Margaret, Countess of Blessington which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822 and, according to Byron, ‘set all London raving’.
Margaret Power (1789-1849) could never have imagined as a child that she would attain the exalted social rank of Countess, as wife of the 2nd Viscount Mountjoy who became Earl of Blessington in 1816. Born the daughter of a minor Irish landowner, she was forced at the age of fourteen to marry an army captain, Maurice Farmer, who behaved with great violence towards her and died after a fall from a prison window. Long before then, however, she had taken up with another army officer, Thomas Jenkins, who brought her to England where her beauty and intelligence soon attracted the attention of high society. For two years, between 1816 and 1818, she lived in Manchester Square, a stone’s throw from the Wallace Collection. It was in 1818, with the approval of Jenkins, that she married Lord Blessington. With his wealth and her charm they together established their sumptuous town house in St James’s Square as a centre for social gatherings which were attended by some of the leading literary figures of the day. In 1822 Lady Blessington published her first book, The Magic Lantern, and this was soon followed by a stream of other publications, including novels, journalism and biographical works. She was also to edit two magazines, The Book of Beauty and The Keepsake. By far the most famous of her works, however, was Journal of Conversations with Lord Byron, first published in 1832-3. She and her husband spent several weeks with Byron in Italy in 1823.
The largely self-taught Thomas Lawrence enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame. In 1792, at the age of twenty-three, he was appointed Principal Painter to the King on the death of Reynolds, and in 1820, two years before the portrait of Lady Blessington, he was elected President of the Royal Academy. The fluid brushwork and seemingly effortless elegance of his finest works brought him a European reputation and won him the loyal support of the most eminent patron of his age, the Prince of Wales, later George IV (see his portrait of George IV in the Great Gallery). His sensitive portrayal of Lady Blessington shows him at his most audacious. Her face is pensive and her graceful fingers perfectly relaxed, but the picture is electrified by the boldness of her pose, stretching forward to emphasise her décolletage, and by the extraordinary bravura of the brushstrokes in the dress and particularly the background which is given the most summary of treatments. It was this refusal to become absorbed in details which delighted many young French artists in the 1820s, like Delacroix and Gericault.
Margaret, Countess of Blessington was bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, father of Sir Richard Wallace, in 1849 at the sale of the contents of Gore House, Kensington. No doubt there were personal reasons for this purchase. In 1822 Alfred, comte d’Orsay, who was to be adopted as a son by Lord Blessington, had become Lady Blessington’s constant companion, and from 1836, until her bankruptcy thirteen years later, d’Orsay and Lady Blessington held a famous literary salon at Gore House. Lord Hertford is said to have met the future Emperor Napoleon III there.
- Levey, Michael, Sir Thomas Lawrence, New Haven & London, 2005