Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Jane Needham, Mrs Myddleton, c.1675 

Henri Gascars (1634/5–1701)

Portrait of Jane Needham, Mrs Myddleton, c.1675, Henri Gascars
Oil on canvas
17th Century
43 x 35 inches 109.2 x 88.9 cm
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We are grateful to Catherine MacLeod of the National Portrait Gallery for confirming the attribution to Henri Gascars and for proposing the identification as Jane Myddleton.

This portrait captures the easy, indolent world of the Restoration court, just as the half-smile that Gascar gives to his sitter suggests the subtlety, coquettery and instinct for intrigue that history confirms to have been Mrs Middleton’s character. The painter also conveys well the ‘all white and golden’ beauty and the ‘airs of indolent languor’1 that Anthony Hamilton remarks in his memoir of the life of the Count de Gramont. Pepys too was struck by her ‘very great beauty’2, and several times in his Diary singles her out for notice. A measure of her effect on him is that despite the reports that reach him on Sunday June 6th of the outcome of Battle of the Downs, the great clash between the English and the Dutch fleets that would decide England’s security in the Anglo-Dutch war, ‘that which pleased me as much as the news, was to have the fair Mrs Myddleton at our church, who is indeed a very beautiful lady.’3

Jane Needham was the eldest daughter of Sir Robert Needham (d. 1661), and his second wife, Jane (1619–1666), daughter and heir of Sir William Cockayne of Clapham, and widow of John Worfield of Barking. The Needhams were Welsh gentry, Sir Robert''s father being Thomas Needham, esquire of Clocaenog, Denbighshire, the brother of Robert Needham, first Viscount Kilmorey in the peerage of Ireland. Jane Myddelton was probably born in the Lambeth house of her paternal grandmother Eleanor, Lady Salisbery, and was brought up in Lambeth and Clapham, one of a numerous family. She was married at the age of fourteen, on 18 October 1660 at St Mary''s, Lambeth, as his second wife, to a man some ten years older than herself, Charles Myddelton (1635–1690/91), sixth son of Sir Thomas Myddleton of Chirk Castle and Cefn-y-wern, Ruabon, Denbighshire4.

At Court her striking beauty was the only necessary qualification for advancement, where she had numerous admirers. When only eighteen years old she had been chosen by the Duke of York for inclusion in Sir Peter Lely’s paintings of the Court beauties that hung in his apartments at Windsor. Two years later she was again painted by Lely for inclusion in the portraits of beauties commissioned by Robert Spencer 2nd Earl of Sunderland for Althorp. Portraits of her were clearly prized; one was owned by Cosimo III Grand Duke of Tuscany, as well as by Colonel William Russell and by a ‘Lord Astley’ identified by MacLeod5 with Jacob 3rd Lord Astley of Reading. Despite her marriage in 1660 to Charles Myddleton of Ruabon, her known lovers at Court included Ralph Montagu later created Duke of Montagu and Laurence Hyde later created Earl of Rochester. She never became the lover of the King, but in the summer of 1678 she made a concerted attempt to replace Louise de Kerouaille, the King’s unpopular French mistress, with her daughter Jenny (1661 – 1740). The plan failed, although the daughter’s beauty – preserved in a mezzotint by Gascars after his portrait of her – was scarcely less striking than the mother’s.

Hamilton strikes spitefully at Mrs Myddleton’s ‘extremely pretentious and affected’ speech which was ‘most tiresome when she wished to be most brilliant,’6 but he was prejudiced against her, since she had been a rival with his sister for the hand of Gramont. Pepys finds more to admire in her, and supplies the interesting detail that Jane Myddleton was an accomplished painter. He learns this from her kinsman John Evelyn when speaking ‘of paynting, in which he tells me the beautifull Mrs Middleton is rare.’7

Henri Gascar arrived in England from France in 1672 in the suite of Louise de Kerouaille, later created Duchess of Portsmouth. De Kerouaille had been sent to the English court by her ingenious master King Louis XIV, knowing that her beauty would be the best cover for her espionage. Her arrival awakened the latent fascination with French taste that has always gone hand-in-hand with the British mistrust of the old enemy. The showy, flamboyant and wholly artificial style of Henri Gascar was the perfect expression of the French taste in opposition to English stolidity, and even Sir Peter Lely, whose genius had dominated court painting since the Restoration, felt threatened as pictorial fashion turned away from his manner that suddenly appeared perhaps too rooted in Dutch realism for the frivolous mood of the times. During his comparatively short stay in this country – he left in 1677 shortly after Louis XIV ceased paying his subsidy to Charles – he painted and – in several cases - engraved the portraits of the principal ladies at the Court. These included portraits of Barabara Villiers Duchess of Cleveland with her daughter, of Nell Gwynne with her two sons by the King, the Duchess of Richmond, the francophile Frances Jennings, sister of the Duchess of Marlborough and, of course, several portraits of Louise de Kerouaille. As remarked above he also painted Mrs Myddleton’s daughter Jenny Mrs May as a shepherdess reclining in an Arcadian landscape. The setting for Mrs Myddleton’s portrait is that most commonly found in his female portrait, and can be regarded as typical – an idyllic formal garden with classical garden temples, refreshed by jettes d’eau reminiscent of those to be found in courtly gardens in his native country. Also typical of Gascar is the use of the large oval canvas, which he employed either portrait- or landscapewise, as an alternative to the large rectangular canvas commonly used by British painters. Interestingly, the characterisation of the sitter owes more to the manner of Lely than is commonly found with Gascar’s painting, and it may be that this portrait was executed comparatively early in his English career, when he may have followed the then-prevailing fashion more closely than in his subsequent works. It is also possible that he may have used one of the many versions of Lely’s portraits of Mrs Myddleton as a guide. The recent identification of this painting as a portrait of Mrs Myddleton is a highly important addition to the known body of portraits of the sitter.

After leaving England Gascar returned to French service, and painted The Signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678. Two years later he was received into the French Academy, before travelling to Italy, and in 1691 to Poland before returning to Italy, where he died in Rome.

1. Anthony Hamilton Memoirs of the Comte de Grammont London 1930 p.355 quoted in Catherine MacLeod and Julia Marciari Alexander Painted Ladies Women at the Court of Charles II National Portrait Gallery, London 2001 p.103
2. Samuel Pepys Diary ed. Lord Braybrooke republished London 1988 p.340
3. ibid. p.418
4. Information on Mrs Myddleton’s family from the Dictionary of National Biography
5. MacLeod 2001 loc. cit.
6. Hamilton op. cit.
7. Pepys Diary p.377
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