Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mary Benwell, Mrs Code (fl.1761–1800) 

George Romney (1734-1802)

Portrait of Mary Benwell, Mrs Code (fl.1761–1800), George Romney
Oil and Canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 in (76.2 x 63.5 cm)
Christie’s, London Christopher Beckett Denison posthumous sale, 6 June – 15 July, 1885, no. 1025: “G. Romney, Portrait of Lady Hamilton – in an oval, 29 x 24” bt Capron; Thomas Capron, Richmond, Surrey; His sale Christie’s, London January 21st 1888 lot 19 as Lady Hamilton; bt Smith Paris, Camille Groult Collection; Paris, Private collection
Armand Dayot, L’image de la femme, Paris, Hachette, 1899, reproduced between pages 280 and 281 as “Georges Romney, Miss Benveld” ; Humphrey Ward and W. Roberts, Romney, A Biographical and Critical Essay, with a Catalogue Raisonné of His Works, 1904, vol. II, p. 11 (the two portraits are perhaps one and the same?); ‘Un musée à Bagatelle’ in Les arts, June, 1905, no. 42, pp. 2-8, reproduced (reversed) p. 5 as “Hoppner, Portrait;” Supplement à l’Illustration, 18 January 1908, reproduced as George Romney, Portrait de Femme
Bagatelle, June, 1905, L’art anglais, exhibited as Hoppner, Portrait
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A nineteenth century label on the stretcher of this portrait identifying the artist and the sitter in this panting ascribes the portrait to Romney and names the sitter as M Benwell. Romney’s Diary for March 1788 records a sitting form a ‘Mrs Benwell’ – the confusion of title being not uncommon in the sitter book – and it is reasonable to suppose that this appointment relates to the present picture. It is suggested by Ward and Roberts that the sitter may be the wife of the painter James Benwell, but this is only a supposition, and it is important to remember that the writers believed that they had not themselves seen the Benwell portrait. The preceding entry lists a portrait of ‘Miss Benveld’, with which the writers were familiar, since it had been published by Dayot in 1899 when it was in the Groult Collection. This portrait of ‘Miss Benveld’ is, of course, the present painting. The identification is a canard, however, inspired by Dayot’s mistranscription of the old label verso as ‘Benveld’ rather than Benwell– an excusable error for a French writer unfamiliar with the name. The two portraits are, most probably in reality one and the same, and comparison with the Self-portrait of Mary Benwell drawn in 1779 (Uffizzi), shows an irresistible similarity to the crayon and miniature portraitist, who was a contemporary of Romney’s and an honorary member of the Society of Artists which was Romney’s preferred venue for public exhibition. There seems little reason to doubt that the present portrait is indeed a portrait of Mary Benwell the painter, and every feature of the face that Romney depicts conforms to the self-portrait likeness.

Mary Benwell of Warwick Court, Warwick Lane, London exhibited at the Society of Artists every year from 1762 to 1774, and in 1791 under her married name of Mrs Code. Walpole singles out one of her crayon portraits in 1770, a portrait of a lady as ‘very pretty, and I believe the original of a miniature in the last exhibition which was also very pretty.’Along with the pastellist Catherine Reade, Miss Benwell was made an honorary member of the Society of Artists at this date.She also exhibited at the Royal Academy every year from 1775 to 1791. Graves records that from 1783 she exhibited as Mrs Code of 10 Duke Street Portland Place, her name and address after she married an army officer in 1782/3. The Dictionary of National Biography suggests that he may have served in Gibraltar. From 1788 onwards Mrs Code exhibited at the RA with her address listed as 49 Charlotte Street, Portland Place, and it is possible that this new address reflects widowhood. In c.1800 she retired to Paddington, and no further account of her life or work is known. Her self portrait of 1779 was taken to Italy by an Italian admirer of her work, and was presented to the Uffizi, where it still forms part of the unique collection of artists’ self portraits.

Some of her works were engraved, of which the most distinguished is The Studious Fair (presumed to be a portrait of Queen Charlotte reading) engraved by Charles Spooner. Another example is Portrait of Miss Brockhurst, engraved by J Saunders (both National Portrait Gallery, London).

By the later nineteenth century this portrait was in the collection of Christopher Beckett Denison (1825 – 1884), Member of Parliament for the West Riding of Yorkshire and a brother of the 1st Baron Grimthorpe. He amassed a considerable collection of paintings and works of art, which were disposed of in a great sale beginning June 6th 1885. The caliber of his taste is shown by the fact that not only was the present portrait acquired by the discerning Camille Groult, but other works found such distinguished homes as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Despite the fact that the label identifying Mary Benwell appears to antedate the dispersal, the portrait was sold as a picture of Lady Hamilton, then as now Romney’s most celebrated sitter. This mistake may charitably be ascribed to error, if not sheer auctioneering opportunism.
Camille Groult (1837-1908) was one of the greatest collectors in Europe of French and British eighteenth century painting. His son Jean (1868-1951) inherited his collection, which after its dispersal before the Second World War provided a good many important museum collections with some of their prized pieces. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, for example, holds Fragonard’s Blindman’s Buff and The Swing, Le Lorrain’s Three Figures Dressed for a Masquerade and The Bower by Watteau which were all acquired, via other owners, from the Groult Collection.
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