Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady, thought to be Ann Davis, Lady Lee 

John Michael Wright (1617–1694)

Portrait of a Lady, thought to be Ann Davis, Lady Lee, John Michael Wright
Oil on canvas
17th Century
27 ¾ x 34 inches, 70.5 x 86.5cm
French Private Collection
National Gallery of Scotland, January – April 2008
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John Michael Wright was one of the most successful native English artists of the seventeenth century, and, along with earlier contemporaries such as Robert Walker and William Dobson, was one of only a handful to find favour amongst the top echelons of society. At the height of his fame, he styled himself ‘Pictor Regius’ [The King’s Painter] and, in his depiction of Charles II [Royal Collection], is responsible for one of the most magnificent Royal portraits in English art. His career was all the more remarkable in an era when patrons continued to exercise their traditional preference for foreign artists, as they had done from Holbein to Van Dyck, and would do from Lely to Kneller.

So it is ironic, therefore, that until recently scholars knew little of Wright’s life, and even referred to him incorrectly as ‘Joseph’ Wright. His oeuvre was eclipsed by the more prolific Lely, and countless works suffered the indignity of being miscatalogued. However, recognised together, Wright’s works stand out from the occasionally pedestrian repetitions of seventeenth century portraiture. If Lely was the most accomplished painter of the genre – or fashion – of later seventeenth century Britain, it is Wright whose actual likenesses have stood the test of time. When placed next to Lely’s work, for example, Wright’s lively and realistic characterisations tend to reinforce Pepy’s critique that Lely’s portraits were ‘good but not like.’

Wright’s success as an artist lay in his uniquely diverse artistic background and training. Although born in London, he first trained in Scotland as an apprentice to George Jamesone. He then left for Italy and stayed in Rome for a decade from 1642, working amongst contemporaries such as Poussin and Velazquez. Records show that his own private art collection included works then attributed to Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, whom he appears to have copied assiduously. In 1648, he became a member of the Academy of St Luke. He finally returned to London in 1656, after having spent time in France and Flanders. No other English artist before Wright had traveled and studied so extensively on the continent.

This highly original portrait is notable for being quite unlike the majority of English portraits of the period. Wright’s varied international inspirations give his works a certain irreverence that even today appears fresh and modern. His ‘Family of Sir Robert Vyner’ [Newby Hall] shows, unusually, the two children playing distractedly. Here, a combination of French elegance and Dutch realism means we can engage the sitter in a surprisingly fresh manner. Although it recalls Titian’s ‘Vanity’ [Uffizi, Florence] and ‘Flora’ [Alte Pinakothek, Munich], the pose is rooted in an alluring – even risky – reality. The sitter’s clothing is undone and falling off her shoulders, and she suggestively plays with her hair. Only the coquettish drawing up of a red drape preserves her modesty.

Clearly, the picture borders on the erotic – at least by seventeenth century standards. A picture with a similar theme by Wright’s contemporaries would have subsumed the sitter’s deshabillé pose into an ideal of beauty, and turned the sitter into a Restoration goddess. For example, Lely’s portrait of ‘Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Gramont’ [c.1663, Royal Collection] shows the sitter in a moment of similar revelation, but it is only Wright’s talent for realism, with depth and density in the drapery, that manages to convey a true sense of revelation, with the charged atmosphere heightened by blushing flesh tones. Furthermore, Lely, as with almost all his female sitters, cast Elizabeth Hamilton as St Catherine, thus using a ‘disguise’ to shield both sitter and viewer from any accusation of salaciousness. But there is no disguise here.

Only recently have we been able to fully recognise Wright’s achievements. The 1982 exhibition ‘John Michael Wright – The King’s Painter’ [Edinburgh, Catalogue edited by Sara Stevenson & Duncan Thomson] led to a revival of interest in his work, and rewrote what we know of his history. Newly discovered works continue to add to his reputation. The present picture, never before published or recorded, is undoubtedly one of Wright’s finest female portraits, and a major addition to his oeuvre.

We cannot be certain of the identity of the sitter in this portrait. The reverse of the re-lined canvas has been inscribed with various details, presumably from an earlier lining. But the suggested sitter as Ann Suckling, daughter of Sir John Suckling, and wife of Sir John Davis of Pangbourne cannot be correct. However, Ann Suckling and John Davis did have a daughter, also called Ann, who may well be the sitter. She was born 1630/1 and married, in 1656 Sir Thomas Lee, 1st Bart., of Hartwell, Buckinghamshire, a successful MP. They had ten children.

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