Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Abigail Hill, Lady Masham 1710c.

 English School 

Portrait of Abigail Hill, Lady Masham,  English School
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76.2 x 63.5 cm
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Comparison with a portrait in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery London (NPG 1494) traditionally identified as Abigail Hill Lady Masham supports the identification of this portrait as the cousin of the Duchess of Marlborough and the supplanter of the Duchess in the affections and household of Queen Anne.

Lady Masham was the daughter of a Levant merchant who had ruined himself through imprudent specualtion, but she was also cousin to Sarah Jennings Duchess of Marlborough by whom she was introduced to Court in 1704. Gradually her agreeable disposition became a greater and greater contrast to and relief from the demands of the Duchess of Marlborough, and she began to gain in influence. The Queen considered her one of her favourites, and was present at her marriage in 1707 to Samuel - later created Lord Masham in 1707. The Duchess was said to be horrified that her ''cousin was become an absolute favourite, that the queen herself was present at her marriage in Dr. Arbuthnot's lodgings, at which time her majesty had called for a round sum out of the privy purse; that Mrs. Masham came often to the queen when the prince was asleep, and was generally two hours every day in private with her; and I likewise then discovered beyond all dispute Mr. Harley''s correspondence and interest at court by means of this woman.''1

When the Queen finally quarrelled with the Duchess in 1711 and dismissed the Marlboroughs from their appointments she turned to Lady Masham to be her Keeper of the Privy Purse. From that point onwards Lady Masham was the dominant influence at Court, and this, and her close friendship with Lord Bolingbroke and Robert Harley -whose conduit to Royal favour she was during the period of his dismissal from office -ensured the supremacy of the Tory party for the remainder of the Queen's reign. Despite a flirtation with the Jacobites under the aegis of Bolingbroke her politics remained uncontroversial, and she retired completely from public life and political intrigue at the Queen''s death in 1714. Her friendship with Jonathan Swift, and the warm terms in which he consistently refers to her, are a testament to her wit and intelligence.

Too little is known of her portraiture and it would seem that she rarely sat. Swift requested a portrait of her for his house in London2 where it was intended to hang alongside his portrait of Harley by Sir Godfrey Kneller, but it is not known whether this commission was executed. This present portrait and NPG 1494 are the only known likenesses in oil, and they confirm agree exactly in likeness, depicting the long face that was the subject of Whig lampoons.

1. Dictionary of National Biography
2. Journal to Stella
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