The return of Mrs Clavering


Portrait of Mary Walsh, Mrs Ralph Clavering, by Angelica Kauffman, about 1780. ©NTPL/Matthew Hollow

National Trust curators are always looking for objects that have ‘escaped’ from the historic houses in their care. These objects sometimes turn up at auction, in which case we quickly need to decide if we want to acquire them – and if we can afford it.

The portrait by Angelica Kauffman shown above, dated to around 1780, appeared in a Sotheby’s sale in London in June 2008. It was desirable because it depicts an ancestor of the Bedingfelds of Oxburgh Hall, but also because of its quality as a portrait. Kauffman seems to have had the knack of making all her sitters look intelligent, relaxed and charming, a talent ideally suited to the ‘age of sensibility’.

Oxburgh Hall. ©NTPL/Matthew Antrobus

The Bedingfelds had lived at Oxburgh ever since it was built in 1482. As Catholics they were sometimes persecuted, and they generally lacked the funds to alter the moated manor house too radically. In 1950 Sir Edmund Paston-Bedingfeld, the 9th Baronet, was finally forced to sell the estate for tax reasons. Many of the contents were sold, but Sir Edmund’s mother, Sybil, Lady Bedingfeld, and two other relatives managed to save the house from demolition and donate it to the National Trust.

Gothic tabernacle, in the Queen's Room at Oxburgh, one of the items bought back in 2004. ©NTPL/Nadia Mackenzie

The National Trust has since tried to re-acquire the lost items as and when they became available. In 2004, for instance, curators spotted eight ex-Oxburgh pieces of furniture and sculpture in a Bonhams auction. Their provenance had been forgotten – they were ‘sleepers’ – and the National Trust was able to buy them all back with the help of an anonymous benefactor.

The West Drawing Room at Oxburgh. The Kauffman has now been returned to the position nearest to the corner, where it is recorded in the 1951 sale catalogue. ©NTPL/Nadia Mackenzie

It was clear that we would need significant funds to buy back the personable Mrs Clavering. However, the volunteers who run the second-hand bookshop at Oxburgh generously contributed a substantial sum, and we also managed to secure a grant from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund. In the end we had just enough to beat off the competition, and the picture is now back at Oxburgh.

Mary, 3rd Duchess of Richmond, in Turkish dress. Print by William Wynne Ryland, 1775, after Angelica Kauffman. Image: Sanders of Oxford

Mrs Clavering is depicted in Turkish dress, which was fashionable in England in the late eighteenth century. The image above, kindly provided by Sanders of Oxford, shows a print after a portrait, also by Kauffman, of the 3rd Duchess of Richmond in similar costume (the original painting is at Goodwood House).

There may have been a mildy racy undertone in these portraits, with their connotations of the Ottoman harem. In about 1750 Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV’s official mistress, had had a bedroom fitted out for her at the château de Bellevue which was called the chambre à la turque and was decorated with paintings of seraglio scenes. A Turkish-style French bed of the period can be seen here.

11 Responses to “The return of Mrs Clavering”

  1. littleaugury Says:

    Love this portrait and period, Lady Mary Wortley Montague is on the top of my list of iconic women. There are several portraits of Lady Mary that depict this same Turkish style. How fascinating the dress of this period, then the Regency, and then the ladies started covering up and how. So enjoying your posts, You are a treasured addition to the blog world. Gaye

  2. littleaugury Says:

    Another project for you or perhaps I could look into it-though my resources would be meager as compared.

    Look at this image of MWM as compared to the Liotard (his work is inspiring-a growing file of his work)

  3. Janet Says:

    The Gothic tabernacle is really lovely. Would it originally have been in the chapel?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Janet, Yes the tabernacle is recorded as being in the chapel in the early nineteenth century, but it was moved elsewhere in the house in about 1860.

    Gaye, Yes this portrait was thought to depict Lady MWM in the past. However, according to the Fitzwilliam’s acquisition records, it has now been established that the sitter was a Greek girl living in Constantinople called Laura Tarsi. She was probably the mistress of John Manners, Marquess of Granby, who commissioned this portrait from Liotard when in Constantinople on the Grand Tour.

    Lady MWM did know Granby, and of course she was famous for wearing Turkish dress, so that may have caused this portrait to become associated with her – an interesting example of celebrity myth-making.

  5. littleaugury Says:

    Emile, fascinating! see- I am learning something here everyday. I may extract our conversation from here-if I may and link it to this post of yours-Is this okay? gaye

  6. Karena Says:

    So happy to have found your site through Littleaugery. I Look forward to reading more and more!

    Art by Karena

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I am so glad you like it – puts the onus on me to keep coming up with good stuff 🙂

  8. littleaugury Says:

    this beautiful post of interest to you and this post from fellow blogger and reader

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much for that. It fascinating to see so many ladies in ‘Turkish’ costume, and to learn about the role of Van Mour in spreading the fashion.

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