Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Harriet Fane Mrs Charles Arbuthnot (1793 – 1834) 1820s

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830)

Portrait of Harriet Fane Mrs Charles Arbuthnot (1793 – 1834), Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA
Oil on canvas
19th Century
18 ¾ x 15 ½ inches 48 x 39 cm
Possibly by family descent; Henry Spencer and Son Retford February 6th 1969 (lot 1107)
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This portrait preserves well the ‘wide-apart eyes, heart-shaped face, and alert expression’1 of Mrs Arbuthnot, one of the most astute and perceptive observers of the late Georgian political world, and one of the best placed to be its chronicler. Harriet Fane was the youngest daughter of the Hon Henry Fane MP, younger son of the 8th Earl of Westmoreland. Necessarily unable to follow her father into Parliament she would appear to have done the next best thing, and by marrying the Rt Hon Charles Arbuthnot in January 1814 she gained an entrée into the very highest political circles. Arbuthnot was twenty-six years her senior, and a widower, but their marriage was happy and companionable, and his position as joint secretary to the Treasury with responsibility for patronage placed them both at the very heart of the Tory political society that she craved. Her intimate familiarity with the mechanism of government at this date was unsurpassed, and the Diary that she kept from 1820 to 1832 – in which year the Tory government finally fell, and with it Harriet’s interest in politics; the Diary ends, literally, mid-sentence – is an unparalleled insider’s perspective on the great events of the day.

Perhaps unsurprisingly during this period she fell under the spell of the Duke of Wellington, her husband’s friend, who with Viscount Castlereagh is one of the constant heroes of the Diary. She was a particular confidante of the Duke, who admired attractive and, crucially, intelligent women. Whether Harriet was ever his mistress is still debated, although students of her Diary insist that their relationship was a meeting of minds only. The relationship between Wellington and the Arbuthnots was so close it was familial, and after Harriet’s untimely death from cholera in August 1834 the two men in her life, Arbuthnot and Wellington, both grief-stricken by the early death of one whose perception and discretion had gained her a unique access to the masculine preserve of late Georgian politics, lived together preserving her memory.

This portrait is an unfinished sketch dating to the 1820s. The likeness agrees with that in the half-length portrait painted by Lawrence c.1817, engraved in mezzotint by W Giller in 1829, although the hairstyle and more solemn characterization argue for a slightly later date. The family provenance suggests that it may be the portrait that was traditionally acquired from Lawrence’s studio after the painter’s death, although none is mentioned in the executors’ list2. An unfinished portrait of the Duchess of Argyll (Goodwood) of 1825 is comparable in composition and overall handling. Lawrence was the preferred portraitist of Mrs Arbuthnot’s family and friends. He painted several of Harriet’s Fane cousins, and his portraits of Wellington (Apsley House) and Castlereagh (Marquess of Londonderry) are among his masterpieces.

1. Elizabeth Longford, ‘Arbuthnot , Harriett (1793-1834)’, rev. K. D. Reynolds, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
2. Kenneth Garlick Sir Thomas Lawrence A Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings Phaidon Press 1989 p. 140
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