Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Jane ‘Jenny’ Myddleton, Mrs May, as a Shepherdess (1661–1740), 1670s 

Henri Gascars (1634/5–1701)

Portrait of Jane ‘Jenny’ Myddleton, Mrs May, as a Shepherdess (1661–1740), 1670s, Henri Gascars
Oil on canvas
17th Century
36 ½ x 29 5/8 in. (92.5 x 77 cm.)
Possibly The sitter; Possibly Bequeathed in the sitter’s will to her niece Miss Jenny Boden 1739;1 Sotheby’s British Pictures July 11th 1990 (lot 25)
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Engraved Version? David Alexander (example National Portrait Gallery, London) The sitter in this portrait is identified as Jenny Myddleton by the inscription on David Alexander’s mezzotint engraving, which reads H Gascar Pinx/ Ms Jenny Midldeton. The engraving reproduces the present composition without reversal, although it treats it as a rectangle rather than as an oval. It is not yet apparent whether there is a further rectangular version of the painting, of whether the format was altered for the publisher’s convenience. Jenny Myddleton was the daughter of Jane Needham whom Gascar also painted at around the same date, and Charles Myddleton, an impoverished younger son of Sir Thomas Myddleton of Chirk Castle. Jenny’s mother was a famous court beauty, and a talented painter, but by career she was a ruthless courtesan whose income was the money and favour that she derived from her lovers. She had not herself become one of King Charles II’s mistresses, but she intended that Jenny should end up in the royal bed, and in the summer of 1678, the probable date of this portrait, she had high hopes of replacing the reigning mistress Louise de Kerouaille Duchess of Portsmouth with her daughter. She had made friends with the Duchess, and become one of her circle, and undoubtedly she felt that a portrait by the Duchess’s favourite painter, Henri Gascar, was the wisest way to present her daughter to the King and flatter Portsmouth at the same time. As Marciari-Alexander notes: ‘An affair between Jenny and Charles II would have secured for the Myddleton women at least temporary financial security; the family had apparently depended a great deal on the generosity of Jane’s lovers since the early 1660s.’2 This plan was unsuccessful, however. As the portrait shows, Miss Myddleton’s beauty – in many ways resembling that of Portsmouth herself – would have been quite to the King’s taste, and so it is tempting to presume that in the end Mrs Myddleton was no match for the Duchess of Portsmouth in the ruthless warfare of the King’s harem. Instead of receiving a royal pension and a title, Jenny Myddleton left Court to live with her aunt Frances Needham near St Albans, and spent time looking after the daughters of the Duchess of Marlborough, who had a house there. In 1711 she became the wife of Charles May of Frant, Sussex, former equerry to Queen Mary II, and a nephew of the Baptist May who had been a friend and patron of Sir Peter Lely. This portrait is perhaps one of the best examples of Gascar’s English portraiture to demonstrate the qualities that captivated patrons used to Lely’s manner. It is highly finshed, where Lely is often broad and painterly, jewel-like in its execution, exquisite and mannered in its presentation and wholly redolent of French courtly sophistication with its echoes of Mignard. The landscape with its fortified farmhouse and distant mountains, alludes less to France or England than to the hills of the Roman campagna, briefly bathing an English courtier in the light and warmth of Italy, and lending her a little of the elegiac profundity of Poussin and the Roman School. The composition itself is perhaps especially daring, almost a show-piece of what Gascar could do with so simple a subject as a half-length portrait. Although only the sitter’s head and hands are visible above the promontory against which she is reclining, we have a sense of her whole body within the picture, and the novel means by which Gascar suggests the entire figure, of which so much more is understood than is seen, is an impressively witty play on the conventional head and shoulders portrait, which, shorn of its background, is exactly what this example is. Like Lely, Gascar is adept in loading a picture with drowsy sensuality, and it seems that the sitter, just woken from sleep at the rock on which she was resting, is turning towards the viewer and gently smiling in an unmistakeable invitation. 1. Catherine MacLeod and Julia Marciari Alexander Painted Ladies Women at the Court of Charles II National Portrait Gallery, London 2001 p187 2. ibid.
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