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Portrait of Miss Elizabeth Linley [later Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan]

Thomas Gainsborough, English, 1727 - 1788

Made in Great Britain, Europe

c. 1775

Oil on canvas

30 x 25 inches (76.2 x 63.5 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 277, European Art 1500-1850, second floor

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The George W. Elkins Collection, 1924

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  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    "She is really beautiful; her complexion a clear, lovely, animated brown, with a blooming colour on her checks; her nose, that most elegant of shapes, Grecian; fine luxurious, easy-sitting hair, a charming forehead, pretty mouth, and most bewitching eyes. With all this her carriage is modest and unassuming, and her countenance indicates diffidence, and a strong desire of pleasing,--a desire in which she can never be disappointed."1 So Fanny Burney described the sitter in this portrait in her diary for April 1773. That Fanny should have been curious to meet the beautiful Mrs. Sheridan is not hard to understand: she was meeting not only the most celebrated English soprano of the decade but a woman who, in her private life, had staged one of the most romantic elopements of the eighteenth century with a man who was to become famous both as a playwright and as a politician, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816).

    Elizabeth Linley (Betsy to her parents, Eliza to her friends) was born in Bath on September 7, 1754, the eldest of the surviving children of Thomas Linley (1732-1795), concert master at the Bath Assembly Rooms and, after 1774, manager (and later co-owner) of the Drury Lane Theatre in London. Like all her brothers and sisters, Eliza was naturally musical; others played instruments and composed under their father's instruction; she was trained as a vocalist. By the age of twelve, in 1766, she had begun to perform at Bath. The following year she and her younger brother Tom (1756-1778), a prodigy who was to become a close friend of Mozart in Florence, made their singing debut at Covent Garden in "The Fairy Favour," a masque performed by children for the four-year-old Prince of Wales on his first visit to the theater. Thereafter, her father refused to allow her to sing in the opera, preferring to have her make her reputation in the more respectable world of concerts and oratorios.2

    But Eliza was formed for the world, and no amount of protection from her father could keep the world away. In 1770 she met Sheridan, the penniless son of an Irish actor and theater manager. Eventually, after a courtship enlivened by her betrothal to the man of her father's choice, a duel fought between Sheridan and his rival, Eliza's flight to a convent in Lille, Sheridan's pursuit, and their secret (and invalid) marriage at Calais in the spring of 1772, they were married in St. Marylebone's Church on April 13, 1773.

    In the month of her marriage she sang for George III and his family at Buckingham House, after which the king told her father that he "never in his life heard so fine a voice as his daughter's,"3 and Horace Walpole, who was present at another royal concert, observed that the king ogled Miss Linley "as much as he dares to do in so holy a place as an oratorio, and at so devout a service as Alexander's Feast."4 That April, Fanny Burney observed that London "has rung of no other name this month....The applause and admiration she has met with, can only be compared to what is given Mr. Garrick. The whole town seems distracted about her. Every other diversion is forsaken. Miss Linley alone engrosses all eyes, ears, hearts.”5

    After their marriage, Sheridan refused to permit his wife to sing in public, although he did arrange private soirees at which she was the star attraction. According to the Morning Post for February 4, 1774, Sheridan took a house in Orchard Street off Oxford Street, "where he give concerts twice a week to the Nobility."6 And, again according to Fanny, "the highest circles of society were attracted to them by the talents, beauty and fashion of Mrs. Sheridan. Entrance to them was sought not only by all the votaries of taste and admirers of musical excellence, but by the leaders of the ton and their followers and slaves."7

    There are many contemporary descriptions of the quality of Eliza's voice, but none more eloquent than that of Gainsborough's friend William Jackson: ''Her voice...was remarkably sweet and her scale just and perfect....Her genius and sense gave a consequence to her performance which no fool with the voice of an angel could ever attain; and to these qualifications was added the most beautiful person, expressive of the soul within. As a singer she is perished for ever as a woman she still exists in a picture painted by Gainsborough."8

    Within a few years of Eliza's triumphant debut in London, her husband had become the best-known playwright in England. In January 1775 his comedy The Rivals opened, followed in 1776 by The Duenna, and in May 1777 by The School for Scandal. Sheridan was a member of the literary circle that met at the Turk's Head in Gerrard Street, and included Dr. Johnson (1709-1784), Garrick (1717-1779), and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792.). His eloquence made him the brightest light in the Devonshire House set (the Whig opposition to the policies of William Pitt and the king). There are hints early on that Eliza was not at home in these literary and political circles. James Northcote tells a story of the time Eliza and her husband were invited to dine at Sir Joshua Reynolds's house and the artist suggested that she sing for his guests after supper. When she declined, an angry Sir Joshua asked Northcote: "What reason could they think I had to invite them to dinner, unless it was to hear her sing, for she cannot talk?"9 In 1775 Eliza gave birth to a son, Tom (d. 1817), but even by then her marriage to Sheridan had begun to deteriorate. Eliza endured with patience his long affair with the Duchess of Devonshire's sister Harriet, Lady Duncannon. But then, in 1790, Eliza fell in love with a much younger man, Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1763-1798). By him she bore one child on March 30, 1792. She did not long survive her confinement, dying of tubaculosis, after a reconciliation with Sheridan, on June 28, 1792.10

    Although she was painted several times by other artists, notably Reynolds in his Saint Cecilia (exhibited R.A. 1775, no. 232, 56 1/4 x 45 1/2”, Waddesdon Manor, National Trust) and as the Madonna in his Nativity window for New College, Oxford (1779), Eliza Linley is as much associated with Gainsborough's portraits of her as Lady Hamilton is with Romney's (1734-1802) of her. Gainsborough must have known Eliza as a child at Bath, for the artist's circle of friends always included composers and musicians. In his biography of Gainsborough, Thicknesse tells a story that conveys the spontaneity of Gainsborough's enchantment with the young Eliza in the first years of her professional career: "After returning from the Concert at Bath, near twenty years ago, where we had been charmed by Miss Linley's voice, I went home to supper with my friend, who sent his servant for a bit of clay from the small beer barrel, with which he first modelled, and then coloured her head, and that too in a quarter of an hour, in such a manner that I protest it appeared to me even superior to his paintings!"11

    The clay bust has disappeared, but a portrait he began in 1768 showing Eliza and her brother Tom still survives (28 x 25”, Williamstown, Massachusetts, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute).12 Thereafter he painted her several times, both before and after her marriage--most spectacularly in two full-length portraits, one of 1772 at Dulwich College Picture Gallery (Elizabeth and Mary Linley, 1772, oil on canvas, 77 3/4 x 60” {197.5 x 152.4 cm.}, London, Dulwich College Picture Gallery) the other from c. 1785-86 in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, c. 1785-86, oil on canvas, 86 1/2 x 60 1/2” {220 x 154 cm.} Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection). In the earlier picture she stands to the left of her sister Mary (1758-1787), later the first wife of Richard Tickell (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, M1928-1-35), who is seated by her side; the turn of Eliza's head, her glance, even the arrangement of her hair (although it is unpowdered and "dressed") is so close to the Philadelphia portrait that the latter could be called simply a variation on the head in the Dulwich picture, though we should date the Philadelphia portrait after the Dulwich full length, to c. 1775, when Eliza, age twenty-one, was newly married and at the height of her fame and beauty. Here sophistication is mingled with innocence, and even slightly with insipidity--perhaps unavoidable in a girl so young and so pretty. In the light of the subsequent history of her life, the Washington, D.C., portrait makes an interesting comparison to the earlier pictures. In it she is a mature woman, touched by melancholy, composed: a woman who has had a life and a destiny. Although the picture may have been begun earlier, its style is that of the eighties, all vibrating lights and fleeting shadow, her hair windblown--nature defined in terms of light and dark, cloud and shadow, forest and open space. It is as though in the Dulwich and Philadelphia portraits the sitter has not yet been touched by life, and this accounts, in part, for the steady, cool light enveloping and revealing Eliza while keeping her slightly removed from contact with the viewer.

    The size and feigned oval format of the Philadelphia painting match two portraits by Gainsborough at Dulwich, one of her father, Thomas Linley, dated by Waterhouse to the late 1760s (Thomas Linley, Sr., 1760s, oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 25” {76.5 x 63.5 cm.} London, Dulwich College Picture Gallery), and the other of her brother Thomas, Jr., of about 1773-74 (Thomas Linley, Jr., oil on canvas, 29 7/8 x 25” {75.9 x 63.5 cm.}, London, Dulwich College Picture Gallery). It is possible that Gainsborough began a series of family portraits, starting with the most musical Linleys, but that this project was never completed. We know nothing of the history of the Philadelphia picture before 1883; hence the supposition is impossible to prove.

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 121-124.

    1. Annie Raine Ellis, ed., The Early Diary of Frances Burney, 1768-1778 (London, 1889), vol. 1, p. 203.
    2. For Eliza, see Margot Bor and Lamond Clelland, Still the Lark: A Biography of Elizabeth Linley (London, 1962); Kenwood, The Iveagh Bequest. Nathaniel Dance, 1735-1811, June 25-September 4, 1977 (by David Goodreau), no. 6.
    3. For Thomas Linley, Sr., see R. F[arquharson] S[harp ], Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. "Linley, Thomas, the Elder."
    4. Horace Walpole, Letters Addressed to the Countess of Ossory from the Year 1769 to 1797 (London, 1848), vol. 1, p. 56 (March 16, 1773).
    5. Clementina Black, The Linley’s of Bath (London, 1971; 1st ed. 1911; rev. ed. 1926 ), p. 94; Ellis, ed. (see note 1), vol. 1, pp. 199-202.
    6. Bor and Clelland (see note 2), p. 74.
    7. Ibid.
    8. Quoted by William T. Whitley. Thomas Gainsborough. London and New York, 1915, p. 201.
    9. James Northcote. The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds. 2nd ed., rev. and enl. 2 vols. in 1. London, 1818. pt. 2, p. 85.
    10. For the Sheridan marriage see William Le Fanu, ed., Betsy Sheridan’s Journal (London, 1960). For her love affair with Fitzgerald, see Bor and Clelland (note 2), pp. 154-56.
    11. Philip Thicknesse. A Sketch of the Life and Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, Esq. London, 1788, p. 39.
    12. Ellis K. Waterhouse.Gainsborough. London, 1958. p. 103, no. 801 (as "A Beggar Boy and Girl").

    Ronald Sutherland Gower, Thomas Gainsborough (London, 1903), pp. 114, 126, repro. between pp. 62-63; Walter Armstrong. Gainsborough and His Place in English Art. Rev. ed. London, 1904., p. 272; A. E. Fletcher, Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. (London, 1904), p. 200, repro. opp. p. 168; "Pictures of 1908," Pall Mall Magazine Extra, special issue (1908), repro. within William Orpen's portrait of Charles Wertheimer, p. 69; James Grieg and Mortimer Mempes, Gainsborough (London, 1909), pp. 97, 176; M. H. Spielmann, British Portrait Painting (London, 1910), p. 90; William T. Whitley. Thomas Gainsborough. London and New York, 1915, pp. 202-3; Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Catalogue of Paintings in the Elkins Gallery. Philadelphia, 1921, no. 17; Ella S. Siple. "Art in America: Philadelphia's New Museum." The Burlington Magazine vol. 52, no. 302 (May 1928), p. 255; Hinks and Royde-Smith, 1930, pp. 170-71; Henry Clifford. "The George W. Elkins Collection." The Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin; vol. 31, no. 168 (November 1935), p. 9, repro. (cover); "Memorials in the Museum," The Philadelphia Museum Building, vol. 34, no. 182 (May 1939), repro. p. 15; The Philadelphia Museum Bulletin, vol. 37, no. 193 (March 1942), repro. p. 30; Ellis K. Waterhouse. "Preliminary Check List of Portraits by Thomas Gainsborough." The Walpole Society, 1948-1950, vol. 33 (1953), p. 69; Ellis K. Waterhouse. Gainsborough. London, 1958, p. 79, no. 449.

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