Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady with her Grandchildren, c.1690 

Henry Tilson (1659-95)

Portrait of a Lady with her Grandchildren, c.1690, Henry Tilson
Oil on canvas
17th Century
49 x 40 in (124.5 x 101.6 cm)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Huyler-White, Santa Barbara, U.S.A., 1960 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, U.S.A., 1961
This resonant and touchingly human seventeenth century depiction of a woman embracing two young girls is highly unusual for its time. Amidst this scene two young girls are enveloped in the arms of an elderly relative - possibly a grandmother, drawn in close in a protective maternal embrace. Completed circa 1685-9, during an era when depictions of adults and children were stiffly formalised and intimacy between family members remained almost entirely unrecorded on canvas, such tenderness and informality as demonstrated in this work is virtually unknown in British portraiture of the period. The inter-twining of arms, the gentle placement of a hand laid upon a knee, and the immediacy of the sitters to one another are postures more commonly assumed in late eighteenth century representations of family by Lawrence, Copley and Zoffany, making the concept of intimacy displayed in this portrait by Tilson nearly a century ahead of its time. In an arrangement of harmonies and contrasts, the artist plays upon the theme of youth and age. The starkness of the drapery and the widow''s black dress are balanced against the brightly coloured clothing of the children. Pink roses, representative of fleeting innocence adorn the eldest girl''s hair and appear in a delicately woven wreath held in her hand. In further contrast, the fading evening sunset visible directly behind the widow, provides the surroundings with a sense of tranquillity and well being while simultaneously hinting at the passing of time.

The natural assumption would be to conclude that the portrait depicts a relationship between what is a mother and her daughters, however the discrepancy in the ages of the sitters, the very young girls in the presence of a noticeably middle aged woman is more suggestive of a grandmother - grandchild relationship. Alternatively, the girls could be the last two of a large brood of children, or the charges of an elderly aunt. Irrespective of identity, the commissioner of this portrait desired to provide the viewer with the distinct impression that the children were being well maintained and valued.

Much debate exists as to whether seventeenth and eighteenth century parents reared their children with affection or cold, aloof dispassion. Certainly advice tracts from the early part of the eighteenth century, heavily influenced by the writings of John Locke advocated the application of tenderness and compassion in dealings with children, however to what extent adults adhered to these prescriptions is unclear. A portrait such as this, however, created to reflect an ideal, would suggest that the woman pictured between the two girls fostered a close relationship with her charges for which she wished to be commemorated.

The story of the artist, Henry Tilson, is one marked by artistic struggle and tragedy. As Tilson only produced one other family group of his own relations, this work is unique. Tilson, a student of Lely's, travelled throughout France and Italy in the company of his friend and fellow portraitist, Michael Dahl between 1684 and 1688. In Rome, he studied the works of the Italian masters before returning to London in March 1689. Once in England, Tilson was able to establish a thriving trade in portrait painting which was tragically hampered by the artist's unrequited love for a wealthy widow. Vertue writes that although Tilson suffered as a result of this incident, his subsequent mental instability was exacerbated by ''his other affairs not going as he wisht, he having often declard his misfortunes where to many for him to go thro''.''(1) After a period of depression, Tilson took his own life at the age of thirty-six.

(1) ''Vertue Notebooks'', Walpole Society, Vol
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.