Gainsborough’s Mrs. Siddons

Mrs. Sarah Siddons Thomas Gainsborough, 1785 oil on canvas, 50 x 39 inches The National Gallery, London photo public domain from Wikimedia Commons

Mrs. Sarah Siddons
Thomas Gainsborough, 1785
oil on canvas, 50 x 39 inches
The National Gallery, London
photo public domain from Wikimedia Commons

During the portentous luncheon at Stourwater, Nick is struck by Lady Huntercombe, “whose features and dress had been designed to recall Gainsborough’s Mrs. Siddons.”[BM 209/199].  Later, at Stringham’s wedding to Peggy Stepney, Nick notices Lady Huntercombe to be “arrayed more than ever like Mrs. Siddons.” [BM 236/226]

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was one of the brightest stars of English portraiture in the eighteenth century.  Gainsborough was of modest birth but was identified as a talent early in life and sent to London to study under William Hogarth. He worked first in Ipswich, then Bath, and finally London, where he became a founding member of the RoyalAcademy and a favorite of George III, though Gainsborough’s chief rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, won the king’s preference for court painter.

Like most other portraitists of genius, Gainsborough’s heart lay elsewhere—in this case with landscape painting––but wealthy sitters paid the bills. The wealthy sitter in question here was Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), a renowned actress of the day and a stunningly fashionable figure.  Gainsborough’s dashing portrait of Mrs. Siddons from 1785 was a prized exhibit in the National Gallery, where it resides still, so Nick and his luncheon companions would readily recognize Lady Huntercombe’s emulation of it.  Her choice to dress at the Stourwater luncheon in fashions that were popular in the mid eighteenth century says something of Lady Huntercombe’s notion of her own station.  What Nick implies about the design of Lady Huntercombe’s “features” can only be guessed.  Perhaps a clue is to be found in a remark Gainsborough is reputed to have made while working on Mrs. Siddons: “Confound the nose, there’s no end to it!”

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