The beautiful Elizabeth Capell was the daughter of William Capell, 4th Earl of Essex and his first wife Frances, the daughter and co-heir of Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, KB, and the granddaughter of Thomas, Earl of Coningsby. Little is known of her character, but a contemporary book entitled Modern Characters by Shakespeare, published in 1778, assigns the following lines from The Merchant of Venice to her:
‘The full sum of me
Is sum of something, which, to term in gross
is an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractised.’5
If we can believe this indirect character reference it is perhaps because her temperament may well have suited that of her husband, who was described by George Selwyn in a letter of December 1775, written in Italy, thus: ‘...young Lord Monson who shows a strong propensity [to gamble] and has been initiated. He has a very pretty figure, and address, and is extremely well spoken of, but I do not apprehend can have great opulence’.6 The couple had two daughters, and a son, John George (1785–1809), who succeeded his father as 4th Baron Monson in 1806.
That Romney took more than usual care with his design is attested to by the survival of several preparatory drawings, such as those now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (fig. 1), the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the Princeton University Museum of Art (fig. 2) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.7 Romney may also have had in mind the magnificent full-length portrait by Batoni of Lord Monson (see previous lot), painted in Rome in 1774, which may well have been hanging by this date at Burton. Although the figures of husband and wife do not face each other, they are both composed in tones of pink, peach and grey, and must have looked very fine indeed together when hung near each other at Burton Hall.
This portrait was painted in the middle of what is generally acknowledged to have been Romney’s finest period, between 1775 and 1790. At this date he was approaching the peak of his success, his newly established reputation cemented by one of his very finest works, The Leveson-Gower Children of 1776–77, in the Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal (fig. 3). Romney’s best work is typified by its refined elegance and assured colouring, and at its best was more than a rival to the work of his better known contemporaries, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Romney never exhibited at the Royal Academy (possibly due to the hostility of Reynolds) but then he never really had to, for his lower prices and his non-alignment with either of the leading political parties, Whig or Tory, provided him with an extensive clientele. As the present portrait shows, in terms of style Romney was certainly the most neo-classical of these three great painters, a direct legacy of his trip to Italy in 1773–75. At first, as here, he successfully managed to blend this with his characteristically bravura handling of paint. After 1790, however, the quality of his work fell off, though his popularity certainly did not. A nervous and moody character, his passion for history painting as opposed to portraiture is witnessed by large numbers of drawings, but was never successfully realised, as he desired, in a great finished work.
1 Huntington Account Book, p. 11r. We are indebted to Alex Kidson for this reference.
2 Memoirs, p. 132. Cited by Ward and Roberts 1904, pp. 119–20. Romney later copied a painting gratis for Peirse, and despatched the portrait of his daughter without payment, perhaps intending this as repayment of this loan.
3 Private Collection. Exhibited, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and National Portrait Gallery, London, George Romney 1734–1802, 2002, no. 113.
4 J. Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701–1800, New Haven and London 1997, p. 668.
5 Portia to Lord Bassanio, Merchant of Venice, III, ii, 162–64. Cited by H. Doubleday, G.H. White and Lord Howard de Walden, The Complete Peerage…, London 1936, 1987 edition vol. IV, p. 70, note (c).
6 Letter of 2 December 1775. Ibid., p. 70.
7 Kidson 2002, p. 191, cat 113, n.7.
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