Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Mary Hartopp married Richard Howe, the second son of Viscount Howe in February 1758. A few months later Richard’s older brother was killed in action while serving in North America and Richard inherited the viscountcy. After many years in the Navy, in 1763 he was rewarded for distinguished service with the position of Commissioner of the Admiralty. In December of that year the couple were in Bath to see if the waters might cure Richard’s gout, and Gainsborough, who had moved to Bath from East Anglia in 1759, was commissioned to paint two full length portraits of the couple. If one was being punctilious this painting should really be called ‘Lady Howe’ as she did not become a countess until 1782 when her husband was created Earl Howe (after his relief of Gibraltar which had been besieged by French and Spanish forces). In 1794 his victory over the French fleet in the North Sea made him a naval hero only to be surpassed by Nelson himself.
However, back in 1764 there is no doubt who Gainsborough was taken with. He seems to have quickly captured Mary’s likeness but X-radiography reveals that he went to endless trouble to perfect his depiction of her dress. By contrast, the companion portrait of her husband is a fairly standard affair, somewhat wooden and conventional. One is tempted to surmise that perhaps Gainsborough’s fussing over her costume might have constituted a strategy to necessitate further sittings. Frankly, looking at this icon of femininity, one is tempted to ask what male would not have done the same. Of course there is absolutely no evidence for this although it has been postulated that the presence of a stump emanating in a very particular way from the silver birch tree on the right might signify an level of appreciation in the painter which surpassed the merely cerebral.
Lady Howe was evidently an enchantingly beautiful woman but also a commanding presence. Her strikingly direct gaze is most unusual in terms of contemporary female portraits (an exception being the portrait Nelly O’Brien by Reynolds in the Wallace Collection) and it confirms her manifest self assurance. She was clearly determined to be painted clad in the very latest fashion, augmented by an array of accessories the most interesting of which is the fine straw hat, probably imported from Italy. Her elegant neck is encased in a choker made from five rows of pearls. But apart from the lady herself, the star of the show is that magnificent confection of pink silk offset by the grey gauze and lace of her pinafore, fichu and ruffles. Gainsborough’s handling of these transparent materials is a tour de force as is his very skilful rendition of silk – you can almost hear it rustle. And perhaps to emphasise the precious vulnerability of this very expensive outfit, he has introduced a thistle which, blown by the wind, might just snag the dress as Lady Howe passes.
Gainsborough has created a landscape which perfectly complements her clothes and her character. She confidently glides through the country, her smart black shoes betraying no sign of contact with the earth over which she seems to float, completely at ease on her own and in need of no escort. Storm clouds are gathering - clouds which echo the grey of her sleeve ruffles and pinafore, and which are shot through with a sunset pink that resonates with her gorgeous silk dress. All this contributes to what Whistler would have a called a symphony in pink and grey.
1764 Joshua Reynolds: Nelly O'Brien, London, Wallace Collection
1765 François Boucher: Rest on a Journey, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
1765 Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Le petit parc, London, Wallace Collection