Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mary Calverley, 1690s 

Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (1646-1723)

Portrait of Mary Calverley, 1690s, Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt.
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 in (127 x 102 cm)
Probably, the Countess of Harborough’s sale, Christies, 24th February 1887, lot 248. Private collection, Isle of Man.
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This portrait was almost certainly painted to celebrate the eighteen-year-old Mary Calverley’s marriage to Bennett Sherard, later 1st Earl of Harborough. It is one of Godfrey Kneller’s most superlative works from the 1690s, and, unlike some portraits of the period, shows a truly beautiful sitter, whose face and character are effortlessly projected from the canvas. In works such as this, it is easy to see how Kneller dominates our understanding of British portraiture, for, alongside Van Dyck, Lely and Reynolds, his name has become synonymous with the visual interpretation of British history. Not only did he paint almost every person of prominence in forty years of British public life, but every reigning British monarch from Charles II to George I sat to him for official portraits.

In this picture, we can see Kneller’s technique at its best, not only in the free and superbly handled drapery and background, but also in the excellent drawing of the face. It is painted with a delicacy that contrasts with Kneller’s more usual bold manner, in which the brushwork is vigorously applied. Kneller himself said, when rebuking those who peered at his pictures too closely, ‘My paintings were not made for smelling of…’, and yet here Mary Calverley’s face bears even the closest scrutiny.

Mary Calverley was the daughter and heiress of Sir Henry Calverley of Eyrholme, county Durham. In 1696 she married Bennet Sherard, then 3rd Baron Sherard of Leitrim, of Stapleford Hall, Leicestershire. She brought considerable wealth to the match, after her mother sold numerous estates and manors in order to provide a suitable dowry. Sherard was by all accounts a likeable husband, and the family enjoyed a happy life. In the summer of 1701, one of his guests noted that “the entertainment we met with here was singularly good, for the family pique themselves upon eating and drinking well… [Lord Sherard] is very much a gentleman.” Later that year he gained election to the House of Commons as a Whig.

However, tragedy soon struck. In the spring of 1702 Mary died, shortly after giving birth to their son, who also died some months later, in August. Sherard, who was later created an Earl by George I, commissioned the leading sculptor Michael Rysbrack to sculpt a sizeable memorial tomb at Stapleford Church in Leicestershire. It is one of Rysbrack’s most impressive English works. Mary can be seen holding her son on her knee, to the left of her husband, who reaches out to them in grief. Rysbrack’s Mary not only looks exactly like Kneller’s Mary, but shares the same facial archetype as the majority of Kneller’s subjects. The sculptor must have used the present picture as his model.
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