‘Walk’d through the Green Park after Breakfast to Miss Gunning at St. James’s found her pretty well… it was her morning for having ye Royal Coach she carried me as far as Lady Clavering to whom I wish’d to make a visit, she was out – I went on to Romney the Painters wth Miss Gunning she was going to sit for her Picture.’
Diary of Elizabeth Hamilton, Saturday 15th May 1784
This striking, Romantic portrait of Charlotte Gunning was painted by Romney in 1784 when she was serving as a Maid of Honour to Queen Charlotte. Almost monochrome in palette, the portrait is an usually sombre depiction of a woman in her mid-twenties; Romney was perhaps responding to the remarkably well-educated sitter and her well-documented sober character. This bust-length portrait forms part of a series Romney completed of members of the Gunning family, beginning with a splendid full-length depiction of her father, the successful diplomat, Sir Robert Gunning in the robes of the Order of the Bath. In 1781 Romney painted a portrait of Charlotte’s younger sister, Barbara and in 1786 her brother, George. The present painting was completed by August 1786 when Sir Robert paid Romney 20 guineas for the picture.
Charlotte Gunning’s life encapsulated the evolving role of women at court in the second half of the eighteenth century. She had been appointed a Maid of Honour to Queen Charlotte in 1779. There were six Maids of Honour at any one time, they were paid £300 a year and provided with servants, but their lives consisted of little more than refined servitude. Gunning would have been compelled to work long hours, to attend her royal mistress through uneventful days and nights and to live a life of dull routine, menial activity, and rigid protocol. It was a life meticulously documented in her diary by the second keeper of the robes, the celebrated novelist Fanny Burney. Charlotte Gunning appears in Burney’s diary – in its published form as ‘Miss Fuzilier’ - in a somewhat unfavourable light, thanks to an episode which underscores the claustrophobic world of royal service.
In 1790 Burney reacts with horror at the news that Queen Charlotte’s Vice Chamberlain, Colonel Stephen Digby, is to marry Charlotte Gunning. Digby, a charming and sympathetic widower, had, she believed been paying court to her, not Charlotte. At first she dismisses the gossip, explaining that Digby’s ‘leading trait is the most acute sensibility’, but it proved to be accurate. Burney was not Digby’s social equal and she had tragically mis-read his friendship. Disbelief turns to scorn, Burney raged in her diary: ‘he has risked my whole Earthly peace, with a defiance of all mental integrity the most extraordinary to be imagined! He has committed a breach of all moral ties, with every semblance of every virtue.’
Through the diary Burney gives glimpses of Charlotte Gunning. Whilst the court was thick with gossip of a possible romance, she records a conversation with Mrs Ariana Egerton:
‘She asked me a thousand questions of what I thought about Miss Gunning? She dislikes her so very much, she cannot bear to think of her becoming Mrs Digby. She has met with some marks of contempt from her in their official meetings at St James’s, that cannot be pardoned. Miss Gunning, indeed, seemed to be formerly, when I used to meet her in company, to have an uncertainty of disposition that made her like two persons; now haughty, silent, and supercilious – and then gentle, composed, and interesting. She is, however, very little liked, the worst being always what most spreads abroad.’
Shortly after the wedding Burney records the curious circumstances of the service itself, told to her by Dr Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, who had officiated. It took place in Sir Robert Gunning’s house in London, in the drawing room where ‘workboxes, netting-cases’ ‘and everything of that sort was spread about as on any common day.’ Shortly afterwards, Burney records an unexpected visit from Charlotte:
‘there appeared – the bride herself! – and alone! She looked quite brilliant in smiles and spirits. I never saw a countenance so enlivened. I really believe she has long cherished a passionate regard for Mr. Fairly, and brightens now from its prosperity… immediately wishing her joy: she accepted it with a thousand dimples.’
We know that Charlotte sat for her portrait in Spring 1784 thanks to the diary kept by another Maid of Honour, Elizabeth Hamilton who recorded visiting Romney’s studio at 32 Cavendish Square in the royal coach on Saturday May 15th. Romney’s sitters’ books record a large number of appointments which now show that he completed the portrait of Barbara Gunning first, in 1780 before painting the present portrait in 1784 for Sir Robert Gunning. The portrait itself shows Charlotte with fashionably powdered hair partially covered by a white scarf, in the manner of a classical vestal, perhaps an allusion to her employment?
The portrait remained in the Gunning family until the beginning of the twentieth century, when the fashion for Romney’s work resulted in its sale, first to Agnew’s and then to Duveen who sold it to the great Philadelphia collector Edward Stotesbury. The portrait hung at Whitemarsh Hall, the Palladian mansion designed for Stotesbury by Horace Trumbauer. The picture was subsequently in the collection of Mr and Mrs Kay Kimbell and was deaccessioned along with a major portion of their British portraits by the Kimbell Art Museum in 1983.
- Manchester, University Library, HAM/2/10.ff/47-48.
- Now in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, see Alex Kidson, George Romney, A complete catalogue of his paintings, New Haven and London, 2015, vol.I, p. 267, no.577.
- Alex Kidson, George Romney, A complete catalogue of his paintings, New Haven and London, 2015, vol.I, p. 268.
- Ed. Charlotte Barrett, Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, London, 1854, vol.V, p.127
- Quoted in Joyce Hemlow, The History of Fammy Burney, Oxford, 1958, p.212. The diaries for 1790-1791 which contain the material relating to Charlotte Gunning’s marriage to Digby have yet to be published as part of the Clarendon edition.
- Ed. Lorna J. Clark, The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney, Oxford, 2014, vol.IV, p.441.
- Ed. Charlotte Barrett, Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, London, 1854, vol.V, p.343.
- Ed. Charlotte Barrett, Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, London, 1854, vol.V, p.344.