Monday, September 11, 2017

The Devonshire Children's Portraits

Henry Howard, Harriet Cavendish, 1798
Henry Howard was a well-known portraitist and history painter in the late- eighteenth and early- nineteenth centuries, who unfortunately doesn't get as much notice nowadays.  Luckily, his visit to the Devonshire family around 1798 resulted in three portraits of Georgiana's three [legitimate] children, Little G, Harryo, and Hart.  Though, I must apologise for the not-so-great quality of the photos of these portraits which now hang in the King William bedroom at Althorp, you can still decipher a certain je ne sais quoi quality to these portraits.  What is it...what is it...oh I know!

Awkward adolescence.

Henry Howard, Georgiana Dorothy Cavendish, 1798
These three portraits were painted when the painfully shy Little G was about 15, the painfully awkward Harryo was about 13, and Hart (who, perhaps, doesn't look totally uncomfortable) was about 9 or 10.  The ages of the daughters, specifically, is of interest because, outside of the rare family group portrait, adolescence is rarely commemorated in portraiture.  Baby and childhood portraits were common enough, and young women were often painted before they were married, or at least when they were in the marriage market.  However, this strange and, somewhat brief, period of youth was rarely portrayed in individual portraits.

 You can almost imagine adult Little G and Harryo cringing every time they passed these portraits; cursing their hair do and choice of headband.  While Little G's posture hints at a discomfort in sitting for her portrait, Harryo's somewhat more confident pose is mismatched with her still childish appearance.  ...and yeah, um, Hart just looks like any elite little boy-heir of the time in his portrait, so I'm just gonna leave that here as a contrast to his poor sisters.  In conclusion, rich eighteenth-century teenagers, they're just like us.  That would make the Devonshires similar to our camera-weilding parents and grandparents, snapping photos of their teenagers out of love, blind to any awkwardness.   When Howard was commissioned with these portraits, by either the Devonshires, or Lady Spencer, the children had already endured a two-year absence of their mother, after she was exiled to the continent by their father upon discovering her pregnant with Earl Grey's child.  It may be safe to say the separation of family members influenced commissioning such portraits.
Henry Howard, William Cavendish, Marquis of Hartington, 1799

If you would like to see these portraits, they are on display in Althorp House, amongst other lovely family pictures of Georgiana and her Spencer siblings as children.  However, if you can't make it to the glorious home, Althorp's website now has an amazing virtual tour.


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