Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Princess Caraboo of Javasu 1817c.

Thomas Barker of Bath 

Portrait of Princess Caraboo of Javasu, Thomas Barker of Bath
Oil on canvas
19th Century
24 x 19 inches 60.1 x 48.2 cm
Charles Neilson Gattey, The Strange Case of Princess Caraboo in The Saturday Book, No.31, 1971, pp.207-15 Francis Greenacre, Exhibition Catalogue, Francis Danby and Painting in Bristol 1810-40, 1973, p.112
Princess Caraboo of Javasu was probably the most notorious charlatan of Regency England. She was in reality Mary Willcocks, a cobbler's daughter from Devon who managed through the adoption of a combination of foreign tongues including Malay, Romany, Arabic and Doubledutch in 1817 to fool the citizens of both Bath and Bristol into believing that she was a Far-Eastern princess, who had been kidnapped by pirates but who had managed to escape to England.

Her attractive looks, pseudo-orientalism, perfect manners and ability to dance and fence won her considerable celebrity status and a large following of supporters. She was accepted into society by the Worralls of Knole Park, who accorded Caraboo a status befitting her apparent royal rank.

Among her idiosyncratic habits which served to reinforce the plausibility of her story were the ability to cook a spicy Indian curry, the worship of the god Allah Tallah in a temple she created in a tree and a passion for wandering around the park with a bow and arrows periodically sounding a gong. She fasted regularly on Tuesdays when she would climb on top of the house where she would remain perched all day long.

She never once let her disguise slip and her deceit was only uncovered in the Pump Rooms at Bath by a Mrs Neal of Bristol, who recognised her as a servant girl who she had once employed. She was subsequently smuggled out to America with her fare paid for by one of her early admirers. She later returned to England where she briefly tried to resurrect her former popularity before she retired to the business of importing leeches.

This portrait of Princess Caraboo was painted at the height of her fame by the eminent local painter Thomas Barker of Bath in 1817. While primarily a landscape and genre painter, Barker did undertake selected portrait commissions almost exclusively of celebrated contemporary figures. This portrait is the primary version from which at least one copy was produced and this is in the Bristol City Art Gallery.
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