Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Caroline, 4th Duchess of Marlborough 1780s

Thomas Gainsborough RA (172788)

Portrait of Caroline, 4th Duchess of Marlborough, Thomas Gainsborough RA
Pastel on paper
18th Century
12 9/16 x 9 9/16 31.8 x 24.1 cm
Caroline, 4th Duchess of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace By family descent to her grand-daughter-in-law, Jane, 6th Duchess of Marlborough Given after her death in 1844 by George, 6th Duke of Marlborough to her daughter Louisa, who married Hon.Robert C.H.Spencer By descent to Blanche .Louisa Spencer, who married Captain H.G.Fane; Thence by descent
John Hayes, Gainsborough and the Bedfords, The Connoisseur, April 1968, pp.217-24, Fig.10. John Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, London 1970, pp.9 + 36 + 121, No.40, Plate 115.
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Acknowledged by John Hayes as the most enchanting and sensitive of Gainsborough's pastels and one of Gainsborough''s gentlest and most touching portraits, this portrait displays qualities of intimacy and immediacy which embraces both the choice of medium and the nature of its commission.(1)

Gainsborough did not apparently execute these pastel portraits as formal commissions but rather gave them as personal gifts to the sitters. This is reinforced by the fact that the pastel portraits of Caroline and her mother, both belonged to the small private collection of the former which was kept at Blenheim Palace and which then descended through the female line of the Marlborough family. She was noted in a newspaper article of 1789 as being the possessor of eight or ten of his drawings.(2) Gainsborough customarily gave his drawings to his friends, and is not known to have sold any (in later life).

Lady Caroline Russell was the daughter of John, 4th Duke of Bedford, an eminent politician and his second wife Gertrude. From an early age Caroline showed a love of music, literature and art, and was privately taught by various eminent tutors. In 1758, at the age of fifteen she was presented at Court to the Prince of Wales, who commented on her attractive looks and engaging smile. Three years later she was again active in the Court as one of the bridesmaids to Queen Charlotte at her wedding of 1761 and she was also in attendance at the Coronation.

In 1762 she was betrothed to her cousin George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough. Her brother wrote to a friend with news of Caroline''s marriage:
I am most extremely happy at my sister's match. Her affections were so strongly fixed that I should have dreaded to have seen her married to another. As for him, I may answer that the fellow is so good and his love and partiality for my sister so strong that I foresee a most happy prospect for them both. In my life I never saw two people so happy in each other.(3)

Gainsborough captures in this pastel portrait the beauty for which she renowned and a distinct sweetness of disposition, which was so much part of her character. A letter she wrote to her father shortly after her marriage to the Duke of Marlborough in 1762, touched him so much that it was one of the few personal letters he could never bring himself to throw away. In it she wrote:

I won''t say how strongly I feel your absence. It is only putting us both in mind of disagreeable things. But I will flatter myself with the hopes of visiting you at Paris, and please myself with that thought. You have always been too good to me all my life for me not to feel always something wanting to my happiness when I am not with you and Mama.

Caroline as the Duchess of Marlborough devoted herself to her husband and Blenheim Palace. Their marriage was by all accounts an extremely happy one and she bore him three sons and five daughters. Horace Walpole records entertaining the Duke and Duchess at Strawberry Hill in June 1784 and describes them as inseparable.

Gainsborough drew only seven recorded pastel portraits during his career, all of which were executed during his period in Bath and amongst these, the portrait of Caroline is unique in being a half-length rather than the more normal head and shoulders in a feigned oval. Her hair style indicates a date of between 1767-72, which would make the Duchess in her mid-twenties. She is depicted wearing a blue and white dress with a lace shawl, seated in an interior, lost in thought with an open book in her lap. The grey curtain behind her chair is brought to life with pink highlights and the background is strongly hatched to give a sense of the space within the room, while in parts of the face orange-brown hatching is used to softly animate the flesh tints. It is executed on coarse grey paper, with the aim of creating a richness in texture to enhance the subtlety of the delicate colouring. This produces the effect of a slight muzziness which Gainsborough believed, all Chalk Drawings of portraits must (have) so small and the Chalk so soft. (5)
The result is a portrait of intense intimacy and sensitivity, as if the Duchess is unaware of being observed.

As Dr.Hayes has pointed out, Gainsborough was perhaps able to create this atmosphere more effectively in his drawings than in
his formal portraits.

Gainsborough was far less concerned about the design and structure of his portraits than he was about likeness and immediacy, and these qualities are amply evident in the drawings; indeed his ability to portray character and physical presence was perhaps most marked in this more intimate medium. He was equally at home with the reserve of the aristocracy...or the gentleness of young womanhood.(6)

1 John Hayes, The Drawings of Thomas Gainsborough, London 1970, pp.36.
, Gainsborough and the Bedfords, The Connoisseur, April 1968, p.223.
2 William T. Whiteley, Thomas Gainsborough, London 1915, p.320.
3 Gladys Scott Thomson, The Russells in Bloomsbury 1669-1771, London 1940, p.368.
4 Thomson, op.cit., note 3, p.369.
5 Gainsborough to the Hon. Edward Stratford, Bath, 21 March, 1771: Mary Woodall, The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, 2nd ed. revised, 1963, p.143 (No.79).
6 John Hayes, op.cit., note 1, p.9.
Gainsborough first came into professional contact with the sitter''s father in 1755, when he was commissioned by the Duke of Bedford to produce two large decorative landscapes, most probably for Woburn Abbey, which was in the course of redecoration.(7) It is interesting that Gainsborough received this commission while still being relatively unknown outside London''s avant-garde art circles. The Duke, however, as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1744-8 was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and it is possible that he knew the young artist from this time. It was not until some years after 1755 that Gainsborough was engaged again by the Bedford family, this time for portraits. In the mean time the Duke had commissioned Reynolds, by then the most fashionable portrait-painter in London to produce full-lengths of the entire family.
Gainsborough had from 1759 established himself in Bath and renewed his acquaintance there with the Duke, who as a sufferer from gout was a regular visitor to the resort. For four years they were practically next door neighbours, as Gainsborough moved into a house in the Circus only three doors away. On 7 January 1765, Gainsborough wrote from Bath to the Duke''s agent,
I should be much obliged if you would acquaint The Duchess that tho'' my 111 Health forbids my following Business in London (to which I have frequent invitations) Her Grace may nethertheless command me at any time to paint any of The Family there.(8)
It would appear that the artist had by this time established a closer personal relationship with the Bedfords than with his other aristocratic patrons. He wrote several weeks later to his old friend James Unwin, that he was on account of his health only executing selected commissions but that, I cannot resist the honour of doing something for the Duke of Bedford productive of further advantages.(9) Among the commissions that he produced for the Bedfords at around this time were head and shoulders portraits of the Duke, his wife, their daughter, Caroline and two nieces of the duchess, Mary Wrottesley and Elizabeth, Duchess of Grafton, as well as some copies of these portraits. The portraits of Caroline, Duchess of Marlborough and Elizabeth, Duchess of Grafton (both at Woburn) have been dated towards the end of the 1760s on account of the smoother modelling of the flesh tones and softer handling of the costume details. He also painted two formal portraits of the Duke, one full length and the other three quarter in 1768-9 destined for the University of Dublin and Woburn respectively.
7 See: Gladys Scott Thomson, Two Landscapes by Gainsborough, The Burlington Magazine, October 1950, p.201.
8 Gainsborough to P.Beaumont, Bath, 7 January 1765: Woodall, op.cit., note 3, p.37 (No.7)
9 Bath, 21 January 1765: Woodall, op.cit., p.163 (No.88).
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