Portrait of a lady?

Portrait of a lady?
I have collected many “things” over the years, often unconsciously. An assemblage of mezzotint portraits of ladies of repute from the second half of the eighteenth century had a certain purpose, and even a policy.

Its inception can be found in Maggs Bros catalogue 500, issued in 1928. What choices: John Locke’s autograph manuscript of his essay on “Reasons for Tolerating Papists Equally with others”, c.1689, £52.10s; two elaborate bindings by Cobden-Sanderson himself, £65 and £120; Purchas’s Pilgrimes 1625, five volumes, fine in original calf, £105; Montaigne’s Essais, 1595, £105; a 12th century Apocalypse manuscript, 50 leaves with historiated initials, £225; Wynkyn de Worde’s Golden Legend 1527, in original blind-stamped calf with all the woodcuts coloured by a contemporary hand, £350; 32 autograph letters by Richard Wagner, £365, Ptolemy’s Cosmographia, 1486, in original pigskin binding with contemporary colouring, £650; or a colour printed mezzotint portrait of Emma Hamilton as “Nature” by Smith after Romney, £840. 

In September 2010 I visited Sanders in Oxford, and bought an early state of Meyer’s mezzotint of Emma Hamilton after Romney for £300. A month later it was off to Grosvenor Prints in London and I returned to Bath with Belinda, Esther Jacobs, Mary Dickinson, Miss Jones and The Hon. Mrs O’Neil, all for £1280. Three of them were after the Rev. William Peters and enigmatic Esther sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds, which in my naivety appeared to confer a stamp of respectability. Once framed and hung out of direct sunlight at home, Laura and the children accepted them as just another layer of decoration. They should have heeded John Donne’s Epigram on an Antiquary: “If in his study he hath so much care / To hang all old strange things, let his wife beware”.

The ladies kept coming, so long as they were attractive, good impressions and preferably priced at less than one would have paid 100 years ago. Miss Benedetta Ramus, by Dickinson after Romney, sold for £672 in 1910, while a First Folio of Shakespeare was knocked down to Quaritch at Sotheby in the same year for £400. Nowadays an unmade bed excites the wealthy more than a carefully coiffured beauty resting her chin on volume 4 of Johnson’s Shakespeare. Perhaps there was a chivalric, or Gladstonian, motive in my retrieval of these fallen ladies. Combined with a degree of curiosity – who were Miss Young and Catherine Trapaud? Many of the portraits carried clues – from suggestive to blatant – often involving hand gestures, and gloves. The demure and tightly buttoned young lady turned out to be a prostitute while a lady of title flagrantly flaunts her assets (having risen through the ranks). Many of them led extraordinary or outrageous lives, frequently featuring in Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. They became collectively known as “Ed’s Tarts” and it was suggested that the collection was a manifestation of a mid-life crisis, rather pathetically conducted in black and white.

The time came to take stock and as Chairman of the newly enlarged and restored museum at No.1 Royal Crescent in Bath I too pulled rank and proposed an exhibition. The curator is Hallie Rubenhold, a brilliant young historian and author of The Covent Garden Ladies, and it runs until December. There is a fully illustrated catalogue (available from George Bayntun) but the ladies are best seen hanging together in an intimate Georgian setting, up close and personal.

Ed Bayntun-Coward (George Bayntun)