This grand and refined portrait depicts Anne Poulett, the wife of the prominent Whig politician, George Nugent Grenville, later 2nd Baron Nugent. Drawn by Downman at the end of his career and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1810, this portrait perfectly encapsulates Downman’s elegant style of portraiture.
John Downman was born in Ruabon, North Wales, in 1750 and moved to London to become an artist in 1769, training with Benjamin West and enrolling as one of the first students at the newly formed Royal Academy Schools. After a Grand Tour to Italy, where he travelled with Joseph Wright of Derby, Downman returned to London in 1776 and established a practice as a portraitist: first in Cambridge, then in London as well as in the West Country, to which he returned periodically over the next thirty years. Within a few years of his return to London in 1779, he gained a reputation as one of the most fashionable portraitists of the day, and was patronised by the royal family, as well as such fashion icons as the Duchess of Devonshire, the Duchess of Richmond, and Mrs Siddons. His popularity was largely dependent on his ability to work quickly and in quantity. In order to do so he gave up portraits in oil and devised a technique of working in chalks on a lightweight wove paper that allowed him to reproduce up to ten or twelve versions of the same portrait. Downman exhibited 148 works at the Royal Academy between 1770 and 1819; he became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1795, but never gained full membership. His reputation as snobbish, undemocratic, and slow-witted may have lost him the essential support of his peers. In the 1790s his critical popularity began to flag, and towards the end of that decade he developed a style of chalk portraiture which was larger in scale, bolder in execution, and more penetrating in the description of personality.
This large portrait of Lady Nugent neatly encapsulates Downman’s bolder, later, approach to his subjects. Anne Poulett was the second daughter of General the Hon. Vere Pullett, a successful soldier and politician who had been elected MP for Bridgewater in 1790. Anne married her childhood sweetheart George Nugent Grenville. Grenville was the younger son of George Nugent-Temple, 1st Marquess of Buckingham, whose father was the Prime Minister, George Grenville. George Nugent Grenville was a Whig politician and author. In 1812 he published Portugal, a Poem and in 1829 Oxford and Locke, which defended the expulsion of Locke from the University of Oxford against the censures of Dugald Stewart. Downman depicts Lady Nugent seated with a musical score in her lap. An elegant, classical lyre is placed on the column to the right of the composition. The subtle colouring – Lady Nugent’s blue shawl, the gilded chair and ornamentation of the lyre and Lady Nugent’s features – contrast with the monochrome effect of the rest of the portrait.