Mrs. Jordan, born Dorothy Bland, was one of the most celebrated actresses of the 18th
century stage, and certainly the finest comic actress of her age. Her early appearances were in Ireland with Richard Daly’s Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. In 1782 she joined Tate Wilkinson’s company in York, England. As she was pregnant at the time (with Daly’s child), he gave her the stage name “Mrs. Jordan” to connote a degree of respectability. Dorothy’s first appearance in London was at Drury Lane on 18 October 1785, as Peggy in David Garrick’s The Country Girl
, a role that would become one of her most famous. Though she appeared in tragic parts, she excelled at comedy and was particularly admired for her various “breeches roles” and comic tomboy characters such as Rosalind in As You Like It
, Viola in Twelfth Night
, and Hippolita in Cibber’s 1702 comedy She Would and She Would Not
. She was not only adored by audiences, but also much admired by her fellow theater professionals for both her skill and kind nature. The writer and critic William Hazlitt observed “Her face, her tones, her manner, were irresistible. Her smile had the effect of sunshine, and her laugh did one good to hear it. Her voice was eloquence itself: it seemed as if her heart was always at her mouth. She was all gaiety, openness and good nature” (The Collected Works of William Hazlitt
, London, 1903, vol. 8, p. 252). Dorothy had a long affair with Sir Richard Ford, a lawyer and police magistrate, whom she had hoped to marry and with whom she had three children. However, when marriage was not forthcoming, Dorothy broke off with him in 1790 and became the mistress of the Duke of Clarence, later William IV. Their liaison lasted more than twenty years and produced ten children, all of whom were given the surname Fitzclarence. They settled into a happy domesticity living for many years at Bushy, an estate given to William by the King. However, William eventually came under pressure to find a suitable wife and in 1811 broke off with Dorothy, a blow from which she never recovered. She continued working, writing to her eldest son that “I begin to think that acting keeps me alive” (C. Tomalin, in Mrs. Jordan, The Duchess of Drury Lane
, 1995, p. 12). After she was defrauded by a son-in-law and badly in debt, she fled to France where she died, separated from family and friends, in 1816.
This portrait is an autograph replica of the one painted by Romney in 1786-87 which was probably done as a publicity venture and was engraved by John Ogborne, initially with the title The Romp and subsequently as The Country Girl. Indeed, the portrait depicts Mrs. Jordan in a conflation of two of her well-known roles: she is shown in the attitude of her portrayal of Priscilla Tomboy in The Romp, but wears her costume for Peggy in The Country Girl. The circumstances of this are told by Sir Henry Russell in his memoirs who, as a child, sat to Romney during the same period: “I recollect hearing Romney describe her as she came to sit for him for her picture. For some time they could hit upon no attitude that pleased them both; whatever one proposed, the other rejected. At last, Mrs. Jordan, pretending to be tired and to be going away, sprang out of her chair and putting herself into an attitude, and using an expression belonging to her popular part in The Romp, she said, ‘well, I’m a-going.’ Romney instantly exclaimed ‘That will do!’ and in that attitude and uttering that expression, he painted her" (A. Kidson, op.cit., pp. 337-38). The first version remained in Romney’s studio until it was purchased in 1791 by the actress’s new lover the Duke of Clarence and is now in the Rothschild Collection, Waddesdon Manor. The present version was probably commissioned from Romney by the Duke after he had acquired the first portrait, and he eventually gave it to their eldest son, George Fitzclarence, 1st Earl of Munster (1794-1842). Two other versions of the portrait are known (currently untraced), but are not now accepted as autograph (A. Kidson, op.cit., pp. 338-39, nos. 737b and 737c).