Sir William Beechey R.A. (Burford, Oxfordshire 1753 - London 1839)

Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter (1752-1809)

oil on canvas
127.7 x 102.3 cm (50¼ x 40¼ in)

Provenance: acquired by Henry Herbert, 1st Baron Porchester, later 1st Earl of Carnarvon (1741-1811), Highclere Castle, directly from the artist in 1790;
by descent to Henry George Herbert, 2nd Earl of Carnarvon (1772 – 1833), Highclere Castle;
by descent to Henry John George Herbert, 3rd Earl of Carnarvon (1800 – 1849), Highclere Castle;
by descent to Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon (1831 – 1890), Highclere Castle (where hung in the Drawing Room);
by descent to George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866 – 1923), Highclere Castle until at least 1895; Lady Leontine Sassoon (née Levy) (c. 1864-1955);
by descent to Edmee Wood (née Weisweiller) (1913-1980);
with Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd., London;
anonymous sale, Christie’s, London, 18 November 1983, lot 45 (as Richard Cosway);
Christie’s, London, 3 May 1985, lot 119 (as Richard Cosway) ;
Private Collection, The Manor House, Upton Grey, Hampshire;
by whom sold, Dreweatts, Newbury, 18 September 2007, ‘The Contents of Upton Grey House’, lot 116 (as Cosway).

Literature: Henry Howard Molyneux, 4th Earl of Carnarvon, Catalogue of the Principle Pictures at Highclere Castle (Newbury, J. Cosburn, 1880), part i, p. 7, no. 10; part ii, p. 10, no. 15;
William Roberts, Sir William Beechey, R.A. (London, Duckworth and Co., 1907), p. 223;
Gerald Barnett, Richard and Maria Cosway: A Biography (Westcountry Books,1995), p.9 and illustrated in colour, plate X.

In this portrait of 1790, by Sir William Beechey, Lady Almeria Carpenter (1752-1809) stands in a wooded landscape, wearing a white dress and chiffon shawl. Her hair is powdered and gathered in curls with a thick blue ribbon, framing her naturally fresh and rosy face. The portrait is a reflection of Nathaniel Wraxall’s description of Lady Almeria as ‘one of the most beautiful women of her time'.¹

Lady Almeria Carpenter was the eldest daughter of George Carpenter, 1st Earl of Tyrconnel (1723-1762). During the second half of the eighteenth century she became one of the most notable figures in fashionable society, famed for her beauty. In 1774 The London Magazine published her portrait and said that ‘This Lady, like a celestial meteor, hath long streamed through the circle of the court – the admiration of the women…blessed with every virtue, and crowned with every grace’.² Lady Almeria served as lady-in-waiting to Maria Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh, but in the early 1780s became the mistress of the Duke of Gloucester, the brother of George III. She gave birth to a daughter in 1782, who was brought up by the prince’s steward on a farm at Hampton Court. After the birth, she travelled to Europe with the royal couple, and continued to live with them on their return to England. Commenting on the domestic situation at Gloucester House, Wraxell said the ‘the Duchess remained indeed its nominal mistress, but Lady Almeria its ornament and its pride’.³

As befitting a woman of her beauty and status, Lady Almeria was painted on numerous occasions by some of the leading portraitists of the time, including Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Highclere Castle. Lady Porchester and Lady Almeria were first cousins⁴, and the same age. Beechey’s account book reveals that in 1790, he not only painted ‘Lady A. Carpenter’, but he was also commissioned to paint ‘Lord Porchester Family’.⁵ A nineteenth-century catalogue confirms that the portrait of Lady Almeria was purchased by the 1st Earl of Carnavon and, as can be seen in an early photograph, was hung in the drawing room alongside other family portraits.⁶

Although this portrait was for a period attributed to Richard Cosway, the documentary evidence presented here conclusively proves that it was in fact painted by Beechey. Stylistically it is consistent with Beechey’s work of the early 1790s, when he started to react to the stylistic innovations presented by Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), who had first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1787. The portraits of this period are probably Beechey’s finest, with their lively and expressive brushwork. Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter is comparable to his depiction of Queen Charlotte a few years later, with both subjects standing in energetically painted, atmospheric wooded landscapes. Beechey clearly delights in depicting the folds and creases the ladies’ dresses, capturing the play of light on white fabric through vigorous brushwork. The sparkling nature of a portrait such as Lady Almeria Carpenter shows Beechey at his best, and demonstrates why he was so sought after in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Beechey originally trained as a lawyer, before turning to painting and entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1772. He was a student of Johan Zoffany (1733-1810), and much of his early work, until the late 1780s, is indebted to his master. After training in London Beechey moved to Norwich, where he built up a good practice and reputation.

However, it was only on his return to London in 1787 that his style really developed, inspired by his contemporaries such Reynolds and Lawrence. With this development came increased success, as Beechey quickly became one of the most sought after portraitists in London. In 1793 he became the official portrait painter to Queen Charlotte, and became a great favourite of the royal family and the fashionable elite. He was elected R.A. in 1798 and soon after was given a knighthood by George III (1738-1820). Such was the sustained length of his success that he also became the principle painter to William IV (1765-1837). Portrait of Lady Almeria Carpenter shows Beechey at his lively and graceful best, as he depicts one of the most fashionable and beautiful women of the era, in a painting commissioned for one of England’s great houses.

¹ Cited in Watkins, C. & B. Cowell, Uvedale Price (1747-1829): Decoding the Picturesque (Boydell Press, 2012), p.36.
² The London Magazine, Vol. 43, June 1774, p.260.
³ The Historical and the Posthumous Memoirs of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall 1772 to 1784, ed. Wheatley, H.B., part V, (Bickers and Son, London, 1884), p. 201.
⁴ Their mutual grandfather was George Carpenter, 2nd Baron Carpenter of Killaghy (1702-1749).
⁵ Roberts, W., Sir William Beechey, R.A. (London, Duckworth and Co., 1907), p. 223.
⁶ Molyneux, H. H., 4th Earl of Carnarvon, Catalogue of the Principle Pictures at Highclere Castle (Newbury, J. Cosburn, 1880), part i, p. 7; part ii, p. 10.