Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Amelia Watts c. 1745-6 1745 - 6

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-92)

Portrait of Amelia Watts c. 1745-6, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA
Oil on canvas
61 x 40 inches 154.9 x 101.6 cm
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This portrait of a Young Girl of the Watts Family dated to c.1745-6, is probably the earliest example of Reynolds portraying a female sitter in classical guise, something that he was to explore more fully later in his career. Miss Watts is presented as Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, who is traditionally depicted holding a posy of flowers and wearing flowers in her hair, and here Reynolds takes this arcadian theme one stage further by giving her a shepherdess'' crook. Since Renaissance times the guise of Flora has been used as an allegory of young and pure femininity.

The profusion of small, brightly coloured flowers which adorn her hair and make up her garland can be found in other early portraits by Reynolds. In a portrait of Miss Grace Goddard, (1) also of this period, the sitter holds a small posy of wild roses with blossoms that can be seen in her lace bonnet and falling down the side of her skirt. Flowers are also present in the group portrait of The Eliot Family (2) of around the same date: one girl holds a garland in her right hand, while the young child seated in the foreground holds a small basket and a bunch. Reynolds was later to make garlands even more compositionally prominent and specific in works such as The Montgomery Sisters
Adorning a Term of Hymen. (3)

Born in 1723 at Plympton, a small town near the important naval port of Plymouth, Joshua Reynolds started work in the studio of Thomas Hudson in October 1740 when he was almost eighteen, and left in the summer of 1743, a year before his four-year contract expired. Ports such as Plymouth were also thriving naval and mercantile centres and his main patrons during this period were drawn from the naval officer class in Plymouth and prominent local Devon families.

The subjects in Reynolds early portraits were a tight-knit group both professionally and geographically. The sitter in this portrait is almost certainly a member of the family of William Watts, a director of the East India Company, who was possibly based in the West Country for a while. Miss Grace Goddard, later Mrs John Culme (d.1809), was the daughter of the Rev.Philip Goddard of Plympton; Richard Eliot (1694-1748) whose family and two friends - Mrs Goldsworthy and Captain the Hon. John Hamilton - were painted together by Reynolds, was M.P. for St Germans and Liskeard in Cornwall.

In these early works Reynolds already shows the study and absorption of both old masters and seventeenth-century British portraiture. The pose of Miss Watts is reminiscent of Van Dyck''s full-length portraits of children in landscapes, such as Anne, Countess of Clanbrassil (Frick Collection, New York) in which the sitter is fixed, as it were, as she glides through the picture space. (4) The inspiration for The Eliot Family was Van Dyck''s The Pembroke Family at Wilton House, which he would have known through Baron''s engraving. (5) Significantly, the young artist, arguably striving for a novel composition, appears to have also deliberately extended the length of the canvas beneath Miss Watts, possibly mid way through execution, (6) in order to create a more
dramatic sense of stage beneath her.

Not all the young artist''s attempts to emulate the refined sense of movement of Van Dyck''s sitters were successful. Miss Watts is less anchored than her Van Dyckian counterparts, and almost seems to float (he was later to successfully master this problem by a greater assimilation of figure into landscape). The masterly handling of the drapery, with its complexity of folds and silky textures, however, is highly precocious; the dress and cloak, like those in Miss Goddard and the Eliot Family, form a distinctive pyramidal shape with sharp points at the edges and displays an interest in progressing the conventions of orthodox 18th Century poses - a trait that, amongst others, was later to set the artist dramatically apart from his contemporaries. Other European characteristic found in this, and other early full-lengths, are the low horizon to the landscape, the interest in chiaroscuro, or contrasting lights and darks, and the strong frontal lighting on the figure''s face and torso. A further Italianate or old-master convention, the repoussoir tree behind the figure, is introduced in an attempt to achieve a middle plane and thereby a fuller sense of composition.

This charming portrait of Miss Watts offers a significant and fascinating insight into Reynolds'' early development. It is one of only a handful of works that have been identified as pre-dating his trip to Italy. In these pictures he reveals the ambition that was to drive him to his status as arguably the greatest English painter of the eighteenth-century. Absorbing hungrily, through careful study, the techniques and accomplishments of the old masters, he attempts even at this early stage to paint portraits that elevate the sitter as well as the art of portrait painting. Despite minor elements of immaturity his portrait of Miss Watts heralds the beginning of his Grand Manner that progresses a tradition begun by masters such as Titian, Veronese and Van Dyck.


The sitter in the portrait has been traditionally identified as Miss Amelia Watts, the daughter of William Watts, a director of the East India Company, by his wife, Frances, second daughter of Edward Crook of Herefordshire. Her precise birth date is not known. When she married in 1769 she was said to be aged 19 which would make the year of her birth 1750 or 1751. Since the painting has been dated stylistically to the late 1740''s, either this marriage age is incorrect, or the sitter is a niece or young cousin of the Watts family. She could also be a daughter by his wife''s first marriage, who has not yet been identified.

While in the East India Company''s service, William Watts, was appointed president at Fort William, Calcutta, in 1758 in supersession of Roger Drake, but almost at once handed over charge to Robert Clive. He was later promoted to Chief at Kasimbazar, and when Calcutta was taken by the Nawab he and his wife and children (Amelia, Edward and Sophia) were imprisoned at the latter city. They were later befriended by the Begum, Suraj-ud-Dowla''s mother, and under her protection their lives were spared. It is said that during the dreadful crisis the Begum took Mrs Watts and her children into her zenana, where she treated them with the utmost kindness and respect. After 37 days the Begum sent her guests up river to Chandernagore where the French Governor hospitably entertained her. Mr Watts was released shortly after.

In 1760 the Watts family left Bengal for England where Mr Watts died in 1764. Mrs Watts returned home alone to Bengal in around 1769 to administer her late husband''s estate. On 1 June 1774 she married for the fourth time Rev. William Johnson and on his retirement from India in 1788 she stayed and continued to reside in Calcutta. There she was popularly known as the old Begum and for nearly another quarter of a century, with a large private fortune, her mansion was one of the most fashionable rendezvous of Calcutta society. She died on 3 February 1812 and was accorded a quasi-State funeral attended by the Governor-General.

Frances was the daughter of Edward Crook, Governor of Fort St.David on the Coromandel Coast and was born 10 April 1725. She married firstly in 1738 Parry Purple Templer, who died in 1743, a nephew of Thomas Braddyll, then Governor of Fort William. She married secondly in 1748 James Altham who died 12 days later and thirdly on 24 November 1749, William Watts then senior member of the Supreme Council of Bengal. They had four children: Edward (d.1828), in whose minority his trustees purchased from the representatives of the Pierrepont family the manor and estates of Hanslope Park, Bletchley, Bucks and who married Florentia, daughter of Alexander Wynch, Governor of Fort George, Madras; William, who died as an infant; Amelia, who married 9 Feb. 1769, Charles 1st Earl of Liverpool and died 12 July 1770, in child-birth; and Sophia, who married George Poyntz Ricketts, Governor of Barbados, 1794-1800.

Amelia''s husband was Sir Charles Jenkinson, 7th Bart., later 1st Earl of Liverpool (1727-1808), an important political statesman. Their only son, Robert Bankes Jenkinson, later 2nd Earl of Liverpool, was born on 7 June 1770 and also pursued a successful political career. In 1812 he succeeded Spencer Percival as Prime Minister, a post which he held until 1827.

(1) ed. Nicholas Penny, Reynolds, Royal Academy exh.cat., 1986, cat. no. 1, pp. 163-4.

(2) Penny, Reynolds, 1986, no.2, pp. 164-5.

(3) Penny, Reynolds, 1986, no. 90, pp. 262-4

(4) Sir Oliver Millar, Van Dyck in England, 1982, fig, p.25.

(5) Millar, Van Dyck in England, 1982, pp. 164-5.

(6) This expositional strip is now visible and offers a fascinating insight into the process of composition.
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