Mary herself was elegant and rarefied. Born in 1770, she was the daughter of the celebrated brewer and member of parliament Samuel Whitbread of Bedwell Park in Hertfordshire. Her mother, Lady Mary Cornwallis, who sadly died the year Mary was born, was the sister of Charles, 1st Marquis Cornwallis of Indian fame. After a careful upbringing, she married in June 1795, the naval Captain the Hon. George Grey. He was the son of General Charles Grey, 1st Earl Grey, a distinguished solider. His brother was Charles, later 2nd Earl Grey, who served as Prime Minster between 1830 and 1834 and who the tea 'Earl Grey' is assumed to be named after!
George Grey had joined the Navy at the age of fourteen and the war with France ensured that, during the first years of his marriage to Mary, he was often away. By 1798 he was based on Gibraltar and Mary took the opportunity to visit him. On this dangerous mission, she saw the French fleet at first hand and witnesses commented on her calmness and fortitude under enemy fire. While staying on Gibraltar she gave birth to her first son, the future statesman and Home Secretary, George Grey. The couple would go on to have six further children.
After serving with distinction during much of the 1790s, in 1801 Captain Grey moved his young family to Weymouth, in order to take up a position of Flag Captain for King George III on his royal yacht. Thankfully for Mary, he never returned to the front-line, serving first (between 1804 and 1806) as Commissioner at Sheerness Dockyard, and secondly from 1806 until his death in 1828, as Commissioner at Portsmouth Dockyard. In 1814 he was made a baronet in recognition of his services to his country.
From an early age, Mary felt a very strong Christian faith and she became a major figure in the so-called ‘seafarers mission’. This movement aimed to spread the Christian Word, by utilizing Britain’s Merchant Navy to distribute the scriptures to a new global audience. Mary’s position as wife of the Commissioner of Portsmouth gave her great local prominence and she was a vital supporter of the cause. In 1828 her husband died and she moved away from Portsmouth, to settle in London. She continued to be involved in the mission, particularly focusing on Ireland, and she was active until close to her own death in 1858.
Daniel Gardner was born in Kendal in the north of England and received early tuition from George Romney. Upon moving to London in 1770 he joined the Royal Academy Schools, before attaching himself to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s studio. Although heavily influenced by that great painter’s compositions and theories, Gardner chose pastel and paper as his preferred medium. Over time, he perfected a technique in which he worked with finely ground pastel pigments to describe his sitter’s flesh tones, while then playing with the different textural qualities of both watercolour and gouache for the rest of his compositions. The present work is a tour de force of this unusual approach.
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