This little known and previously unpublished painting is a fine example of Reynolds’s mature portraiture. Preserved in remarkable condition the painting has remained in the family’s possession since its completion. Recorded in Reynolds’s Account Ledger for 1776, the portrait shows the sophisticated visual language Reynolds had developed to compose his depictions of patrician women, particularly of mothers with their children. The successful grouping of Elizabeth Rolleston caused the present painting to be engraved in the nineteenth century as ‘Maternal Love’. Elizabeth Rolleston and her son Samuel, are shown in a complex serpentine pose, almost certainly derived from an old master painting or print, a pose that Reynolds had first trialled in a grand full-length depiction of Elizabeth, Viscountess Melbourne which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773.
The portrait was commissioned by Samuel Rolleston shortly after his marriage to Elizabeth Carr and birth of their first son, Samuel. Rolleston was the son of a successful London merchant and member of the Goldsmiths Company, Matthew Rolleston who had been elected a sheriff of the City of London in 1756. He had considerable property and commercial interests in Southampton and on the Isle of Wight, where Samuel owned a number of mills. In short, the Rollestons belonged to the burgeoning middle class whose wealth was founded on commerce and manufacturing rather than land.
By 1776, when Samuel Rolleston commissioned a portrait of his wife and son, Sir Joshua Reynolds was the most celebrated portraitist in London. The founding President of the Royal Academy, he had been knighted by George III and ran an enormously successful and productive portrait practice from his house at 47 Leicester Square. During the 1770s Reynolds fully embraced the opportunities presented by the Royal Academy, exhibiting over 100 portraits at the annual exhibitions. As Martin Postle has pointed out, by the 1770s Reynolds had come to rely on a number of assistants to help him work on the deluge of commissions. James Northcote joined Reynolds’s studio in 1771, and in a series of letters addressed to his brother, Samuel, he gives glimpses of Reynolds’s method. In April 1772 Northcote informed his brother:
‘I am now about the drapery of a half length picture by Sir Joshua of an old gentleman one Mr Calthorp which is a very fine head, this is the first I have ever painted from the lay man and I am much afraid how I shall do it I am to paint a blue coat with a glove on one hand and his hat in the other, with a yellow curtain behind I should have painted it a red curtain, but the damask is lost which the curtains used to be painted from, I shall make part of a building appear beyond the curtain and a landscape in the back ground.’
This suggests a division of labour that was essential to the completion of Reynolds’s portraits. Whilst heads and poses were dictated by Reynolds himself, the execution of the costume and ancillary elements, such as drapery and background landscape were generally but not exclusively completed by assistants. This did not mean unsupervised labour. As Northcote reported to his brother on June 12 1772: ‘you desire to know if the drapery that I painted was liked or not, some parts of it did without alteration and some would not as you must suppose.’ Even where studio involvement was necessary, Reynolds exercised editorial control.
By 1776 Reynolds had also established a systematic method of determining the attitudes chosen for portraits, keeping a portfolio of engravings after his own and other artists' works from which sitters could choose and adapt poses. The portrait of Elizabeth Rolleston was based upon a successful pose Reynolds had used to depict Elizabeth, Viscountess Melbourne and her son Peniston Lamb in 1770. It is likely that Samuel Rolleston was shown the engraving of Lady Melbourne made by Thomas Watson which had been published on 10 February 1775, selecting it as an appropriate model for the portrait of his own wife and son. Reynolds was, at this date, experimenting with the relationship between mothers and children, producing a sequence of portraits of patrician sitters and their offspring arranged in complex poses. In the mid-1760s Reynolds had painted a portrait of Mrs Edward Lascelles and her daughter Frances in a pose derived from an engraving by Battista Franco of the Virgin and Child in a Landscape; the somewhat awkward arrangement showed the infant Frances Lascelles reaching athletically up to play with her mother’s hair. In a portrait of The Duchess of Marlborough with her daughter dated 1765, Reynolds showed Lady Caroline Spencer being held playfully at arms-length in a pose derived from a lunette on the Sistine Chapel. In 1770 Reynolds exhibited a portrait of Mrs Edward Bouverie, who is shown seated in profile holding her child, who is shown obliquely playing with his mother’s veil. The pose Reynolds adopts in his portrait of Elizabeth Rolleston is not a precise replication of that used in his portrait of Lady Melbourne, it is a further elaboration; the infant Samuel Rolleston is depicted carefully held by his mother, with his right hand raised, playing with the plait of Elizabeth Rolleston’s hair. The portrait of Elizabeth Rolleston and her son is a hugely sophisticated solution to a compositional problem Reynolds had encountered in attempting to show his female sitters both engaged with their active child and looking at the viewer.
In each of this sequence of grand female portraits, the sitters are shown in loose, classical costume. They can be viewed as a deliberate exercise in what Reynolds referred to in his fifth Discourse of 1772 as the ‘Historical Style’, which endowed the figure with the ‘simplicity of the antique air and attitude’. An effect accentuated by Reynolds’s choice of costume; it was a form of dress Reynolds often adopted in his portraits of aristocratic women, especially during the 1760s and 1770s. In doing so, Reynolds aspired ostensibly to transcend the vagaries of contemporary fashion. Reynolds produced a second sequence of portraits of mothers and children in the 1780s, but rather than continuing to depict them in classical costume, he showed them in modern dress culminating in his dynamic depiction of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1786.
Reynolds’s Ledgers reveal that Samuel Rolleston senior made two payments for the portrait. The first on July 18, 1775 for 50 guineas. Listed in Reynolds’s surviving Ledger as ‘First Payment’, this follows what we know of Reynolds’s custom of taking a sum on deposit and receiving the balance on completion. Reynolds received the second payment from Rolleston on July 1776 for 55 guineas. This raises the interesting question of precisely how many paintings Rolleston had commissioned. In September 1777 Reynolds wrote to the Liverpool merchant and collector, Daniel Daulby: ‘my prizes – for a head is thirty-five Guineas – As far as the Knees seventy – and for a whole-length one hundred and fifty.’ We would then expect the present portrait, a conventional ‘half-length, to have cost only 70 guineas, rather than the 105 guineas Rolleston paid. The most likely explanation is that Rolleston in fact commissioned two portraits, the present picture and a reduced version, or ¾ size portrait of 35 guineas. This is likely to be a painting that appeared at Sotheby’s, New York January 11, 1996 (lot.213) and is listed above as copy i.
When this reduced version of the portrait appeared at auction in 1996 it was identified as a depiction of Lady Anne Butler, later Lady Ormonde. Graves and Cronin recorded a portrait of Lady Anne Butler which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1871 from the possession of the collector, Hugh Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster. This is in fact a further copy of the present painting that is now on loan to White’s in London and listed above as copy ii. The identification of the sitter as Anne Butler, Countess of Ormonde is problematic. Whilst Reynolds’s sitters’ books do not survive for 1775 or 1776, his Ledgers are remarkably complete and there is no record of Anne’s husband, John Butler, later 17th Earl of Ormonde or her father, John Wandesford, 5th Viscount Castlecomer having made any payments. Whilst in the collection of the distinguished Whig politician and collector, Henry Labouchere, Lord Taunton, the painting was engraved by James Scott and published in 1865 with the title ‘Maternal Love’; a title which underlines the ambiguity of the sitter’s identification.
The appearance of the drapery in the present portrait does require comment. In 1775 Reynolds seems to have been employing a particularly fugitive red lake pigment which he used to paint the costume of Elizabeth Rolleston. This explains the apparently unfinished quality of the drawing of the drapery, given that over time the red lake has become transparent thus exposing the under painting. A painting of the same date, Mrs Richard Crofts, now in the Dixon Art Gallery, Memphis shows the same effect. The bold, somewhat loosely formed figure of Elizabeth Rolleston is close to other three-quarter length portraits Reynolds executed at the same date. In 1777 Reynolds exhibited a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Herbert and her son at the Royal Academy, the composition shows the infant Charles Herbert reaching up to stroke his mother’s chin, in a pose that echoes that of Elizabeth Rolleston and her son. The loose, boldly drawn painting of the figure of Lady Elizabeth Herbert is close to that of Elizabeth Rolleston, equally the high level of finish in their faces and complex, fashionable hairdos, suggests that this was a norm of Reynolds’s practice at this date.
The portrait of Elizabeth Rolleston and her son passed to Samuel Rolleston, who was to have an eventful career in Britain’s burgeoning Empire. Appointed to the East India Company’s civil service in Bombay in 1794, en route to India the ship he was travelling on, The Ganges, sank off the Cape of Good Hope and he left an account now in the British Library.The portrait remained with his descendants at Great Pan Manor, Whippingham on the Isle of Wight, unknown to scholars, despite being exhibited in Birmingham in 1931. Boldly painted, beautifully preserved and showing Reynolds’s fascination with depictions of mothers and their children, this portrait is an important addition to Reynolds’s oeuvre.
We are grateful to Martin Postle for help with cataloguing this picture and for confirming the attribution to Joshua Reynolds.
- Samuel Rolleston owned Pan Mill, Newport, Isle of Wight. For Samuel Rolleston’s will see London, The National Archives, Prob 11/1674.
- London, Royal Academy Archive, Northcote Papers, NOR/9, James Northcote to Samuel Northcote, April 9 1772.
- London, Royal Academy Archive, Northcote Papers, NOR/10, James Northcote to Samuel Northcote, 12 June 1772.
- Ed Nicholas Penny, Reynolds, exh. cat., London (Royal Academy of Arts), 1986, p.349.
- See Mark Hallett, Reynolds: Portraiture in Action, New Haven and London, 2014, pp.406-416.
- Malcolm Cormack, ‘The Ledgers of Sir Joshua Reynolds’, The Walpole Society, 1968-1970, vol.42, p.161.
- Malcolm Cormack, ‘The Ledgers of Sir Joshua Reynolds’, The Walpole Society, 1968-1970, vol.42, p.105.
- Malcolm Cormack, ‘The Ledgers of Sir Joshua Reynolds’, The Walpole Society, 1968-1970, vol.42, p.162.
- Eds. John Ingamells and John Edgcumbe, The Letters of Sir Joshua Reynolds, New Haven and London, 2000, p.69.
- This was a suggestion made by David Mannings, without knowledge of the present portrait. See David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds, New Haven and London, 2000, no.1548, p.398 ('Mrs Rollestone', as untraced).
- A. Graves and W.V. Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, London, 1899-1901, vol.I, p.138.
- Eds. Lucy Davis and Mark Hallett, Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint, exh. cat., London (Wallace Collection), 2015, pp.23-24.
- David Mannings and Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds, New Haven and London, 2000, cat. no.455. p.155.
- Simon Martin, ‘The Loss of an East Indiaman in 1807: account by Samuel Rolleston’ in The Journal of the Families in British India Society, no.22 Autumn 2009, pp.23-29.