This elegant portrait by Angelika Kauffmann almost certainly depicts the young generation of Spencers, one of the wealthiest families in England. The children were prominent members of the English aristocracy who grew up to become important and influential social figures in their own right, particularly Lady Georgiana, later Duchess of Devonshire, pictured at left. The Spencers were amongst Angelika Kauffmann’s earliest British patrons; this portrait was painted soon after the artist’s arrival from Rome in 1766. By the late 1770s, Kauffmann was one of the most sought-after painters in England and was one of only two female founding members of the Royal Academy.
One of the most cultured women of her generation, and one of the most influential women of the eighteenth century, Angelika Kauffmann holds a place of particular importance in European art history. A talented musician, as well as one of the first truly great professional female artists, she was both a brilliant history and portrait painter. Born in Switzerland, she trained in Rome, where she befriended the English neo-Classical painters Gavin Hamilton and Nathaniel Dance and first met the Spencer family. She arrived in England in 1766. In London she quickly became a close friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom she is rumored to have nearly married at one point, as well as many of the most prominent cultural figures in England. Fluent in English, French, Italian and German, her charm, wit, intelligence, and skill attracted much attention, and she was highly sought after by many of the foremost connoisseurs of the day, including members of the Royal family. In 1781, following her marriage to the Italian decorative painter Antonio Zucchi, she returned to Rome where her studio became a popular stop for fashionable visitors on the grand tour, including artists, writers, aristocrats and dealers. Her clients included many of the crowned heads of Europe, such as Catherine the Great of Russia, and she was close friends with international luminaries such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Antonio Canova, and Sir William Hamilton.
John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer (1734-1783) of Althorp, Northamptonshire, and his wife Georgiana (d. 1814) traveled to Italy in June 1763, where they first met Angelika Kauffmann. The Spencers' commission of the present portrait of their three children would have been completed within the first few years of Kauffmann's arrival in England, and it is unsurprising that the Spencers, particularly Mrs. Spencer, would have been interested in supporting a female artist's career. The Spencers again commissioned Kauffmann to paint their children a few years later, circa 1774, when they had grown into young adults (fig. 1). In that full-length portrait their wide-eyed innocence has been replaced by an evocative solemnity and seriousness in each of the children’s poses. The Earl and Lady Spencer, their children, and in turn many of their friends continued to support the artist for decades to come, even after she left England for Italy.
In the present group portrait, Kauffmann depicts the three young Spencer children dressed in elegant costumes and seated on a ledge within a sprawling landscape, each holding a different object. Seated at left with a handful of flowers is Lady Georgiana Spencer (1757-1806), the eldest of the three children, who was likely ten or eleven years old in the present painting. A comparison of her likeness can be made to a portrait of her by Thomas Gainsborough in 1763, which would have been completed just a couple of years before the present work (fig. 2). The similarities in the parting of her hair and hairline as well as the placement of her eyes is almost identical in the two portraits, though Kauffmann has emphasized the reddish tones of her hair more than Gainsborough.
At the age of seventeen, Lady Georgiana became Duchess of Devonshire upon her marriage to William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, one of the few men whose wealth exceeded that of the Spencers'. As Duchess, she became one of the most famous and powerful women in London, exhibiting enormous influence on the day’s fashion trends as well as political life, and making Devonshire House a center of upper class society. The Duchess of Devonshire would gain notoriety not only for her considerable intellect and wit, but also for her provocative choices at home. Georgiana’s acceptance of her husband’s relationship with her close friend Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster turned their marriage into a shocking ménage à trois, as Georgiana and Bess continued their close friendship despite the obvious complications. In 1785, in the midst of this scandalous affair, Lady Elizabeth sat to Angelika Kauffmann (fig. 3), a commission perhaps encouraged by Georgiana who had likely continued a relationship with the artist. Georgiana wasn’t without her own extramarital affairs; after producing three children with the Duke, including a male heir, she began a relationship with the young politician Charles Gray and secretly bore his illegitimate child, living abroad and away from the Duke for two years. After her return to London, she lived for another twelve years though she only gradually reentered society. Upon her death in 1806, the Duke married Lady Elizabeth.
To Lady Georgiana’s right is her brother George John, Viscount Althorp (1758-1834), who became 2nd Earl Spencer upon his father’s death in 1783. He holds a bow, perhaps alluding to his interest in archery; he won the “Silver Arrow” prize at Harrow School in 1771. Viscount George would later serve as a Member of Parliament for Northampton and Surrey, and later became the Home Secretary under Lord Grenville, amongst other public positions. He married Lady Lavinia Bingham in 1781 and together they had nine children.
The youngest of the Spencer children, Lady Henrietta Frances (1761-1821) is depicted at the center of the painting holding an arrow and delicately pricking her finger. Lady Henrietta would marry Frederick Ponsonby, then the Viscount Duncannon, who later became 3rd Earl of Bessborough. She bore him three children, though the marriage was an unhappy one and Lady Henrietta was known to have numerous affairs and at least two illegitimate children. As Countess of Bessborough, she again sat to Angelika Kauffmann in 1793 when she was on a trip to Italy (fig. 4).
We are grateful to Charles Noble, Curator of Fine Art at Chatsworth, for his assistance with the cataloguing of this lot. We are also grateful to Wendy Roworth and Bettina Baumgärtel, both of whom fully support the attribution to Angelika Kauffmann. Roworth agrees with the dating to the late 1760s, confirming the sitters as the Spencer family, though Baumgärtel dates the work stylistically to the late 1780s, after the artist had returned to Italy.