Between 1887 and 1891 the wealthy brewer Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, amassed a remarkable collection of Old Master paintings, which he subsequently donated to the British nation together with Kenwood House and its estate. Seventy-five years ago the Iveagh Estate was opened to the public; so to celebrate that anniversary I have chosen one of my favourite works from the Iveagh Bequest: Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Mary, Countess Howe, which can still be seen at Kenwood House today. Julius Bryant's outstanding, recently published catalogue to the collections at Kenwood tells the story of the picture in great detail, and for what follows I have drawn heavily on his meticulous research - as well as his mischievous sensitvity to pictorial metaphor.
At just under eight feet high, Gainsborough’s masterpiece is one of the most imposing of English eighteenth-century portraits. Wearing a formidably fashionable and impressively intricate outfit, Countess Howe puts her best – and immaculately shod – foot forward in a romantically stormy landscape which stands, symbolically, for her extensive landed interests. Sensuous but self-possessed, she fixes the viewer with an expression of coquettishly alluring hauteur. The embodiment of a very particular British type of beauty, teasingly self-contained, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Helen Mirren.
Born plain Mary Hartopp, daughter of Chiverton Hartopp of Welby in Nottinghamshire, a landowner who became Governor of Plymouth, she had married into the aristocracy in 1758 by wedding Richard Howe. A good match had become a spectacular one when her new husband’s older brother died in 1758 at the Battle of Tricondera in North America, leaving him to inherit the Howe viscountcy. Like his deceased brother, Richard Howe pursued a military career, distinguishing himself in the navy during the Seven Years War to such an extent that by its end, in 1763, he had been elevated to the position of a Commissioner of the Admiralty. At the end of that same year the off-duty Howe and his elegant wife decided to spend the winter at the fashionable spa resort of Bath, in the hope that taking the waters might improve his gout. It was then that they met Thomas Gainsborough, who had recently set up a studio in the town.
Howe was an altogether formidable man. Described by Horace Walpole as “undaunted as a rock and as silent”, he was destined to to become First Lord of the Admiralty and one of the great naval heroes of the Georgian period. According to Sir John Barrow’s Life of Richard, Earl Howe, he was blessed with an irreproachably meek and compliant wife, “watching over her lord in all his illnesses, accompanying him wherever he went…” Yet as Gainsborough’s glittering portrait of her suggests, she was not always entirely content to stay out of the limelight. The artist’s matching portrait of Richard, Earl Howe (which was not, understandably, purchased by the Earl of Iveagh) is the same size as the picture reproduced on this page but is an altogether more pedestrian and perfunctory performance. In art, if not in life, Mary Howe was determined to take centre stage.
The commission was an important opportunity for Gainsborough and his portrait of Lady Howe is a milestone in his career, announcing in its scale and grandeur his ambition to compete not only with his more established contemporaries – notably Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had more or less cornered the market for monumental portraits of English milords and ladies – but also to rival the most imposing portraits of the Old Masters. Gainsborough had travelled to Wilton House to study and to copy Van Dyck’s masterpiece of Stuart court portraiture, The Pembroke Family, and Lady Howe’s elegantly formal, upright pose, as well as her air of aristocratic reserve, owe much to the example of that work.
Her costume represents the height of fashion, circa 1763, and her evident pride in it is reflected in the care which the painter has taken to depict its every detail. She wears a silk bodice over corsets and a splendid matching pink silk dress which perfectly sets off her contrastingly pale complexion – itself a mark of aristocratic status, indicating a life of civilised leisure spent largely indoors. Five rows of natural pearls are strung about her dainty neck, while on her head she wears a fashionable ‘Leghorn’ bonnet imported from Livorno in Italy. Her powdered hair, held within a fine net, creates an effect somewhat reminiscent of a halo. Gainsborough captures her as a real flesh-and-blood creature while simultaneously imparting to her an air of mythic timelessness. She is the goddess of the glade that she inhabits, a modern version of Diana the huntress (an insinuation carried by the furtive deer lurking in shadow behind her), irresistible yet untouchable.
Easily charmed by the fairer sex, Gainsborough sometimes became so aroused by his female sitters that he sought relief from his frustration with prostitutes; and in 1763 one such encounter left him so unwell with the clap that his death was wrongly reported in the newspapers. He was clearly attacted to Mary Howe and went so far as to include an unobtrusive but unmistakeable symbol of sexual arousal in the form of the broken bough protruding priapically from the silver birch next to her. This truncated phallic symbol is a ribald compliment, implying that even the trees are agitated by her beauty. The twinkle in her eye suggests her own amused complicity in this mildly indecent in-joke. Like many a good and virtuous wife, she may rather have liked the idea of arousing impure thoughts in others.