Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88)
Maria occupied a central role in British aristocratic society during the second half of the eighteenth century and after being widowed at just 27, she secretly married the younger brother of King George III...
This fine portrait by Thomas Gainsborough depicts the famous eighteenth century aristocratic beauty Maria Walpole, and was painted, according to Gainsborough scholar Ellis Waterhouse, c.1764/5 when the artist was living and working in Bath.
Maria occupied a central role in British aristocratic society during the second half of the eighteenth century and was renowned for her lively wit. The present work was painted by Gainsborough after she had become a widow at the age of 27, following the death of her first husband, James, 2nd Earl of Waldegrave. As required by convention, she wears a black mourning dress. However, her hairstyle, jewellery, and other details of dress reveal a young woman fully aware of current fashion.
Born in 1736, she was the second daughter of Sir Edward Walpole, then MP for Great Yarmouth, a younger son of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and Dorothy Clement. Her parents were not married, with her mother coming from a humble background, being the daughter of Hammond Clement, postmaster at Darlington. Dorothy had been discovered sitting on a dustcart by Catherine, wife of the clergyman Thomas Secker, who declared that she had never seen a ‘more lovely creature’. Dorothy was then apprenticed to a Covent Garden milliner, who was instrumental in arranging for the sexual liaison with Edward Walpole.
Maria was raised with her sisters and brothers at her father’s houses at Englefield Green, Surrey, and in London. She was wholly accepted, and treated by the Walpole family as if she were legitimate. Horace Walpole, her uncle, regarded her as a great beauty, considering her a rival to Maria, Countess of Coventry. In 1759 she married James Waldegrave, 2nd Earl Waldegrave (1715-63), a courtier who had been a lord of the bedchamber to George II and governor to the future George III. Despite their 21 year age difference the couple had a happy marriage, which produced three daughters. Waldegrave died of smallpox in 1763 leaving a very young widow.
Maria was left a jointure of £1,000 per annum and charged with the care of her three daughters. Horace Walpole told Sir Horace Mann, “As she is so young, she may find as great a match and a younger lover.” (Walpole, Corr., 22.128). As if to fulfil her uncle’s prediction, Maria secretly married William Henry, 1st Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1743-1805), the younger brother of King George III, at Gloucester’s house in Pall Mall in 1766. George III was ambivalent to the relationship, unhappy that his brother would choose to marry a subject, yet unwilling for him to have a mistress. In 1768 the King awarded Maria a pension of £5,000 per annum from the Irish revenues. However, the King still regarded the relationship as a danger for Gloucester’s health and arranged a number of tours to the continent for his brother beginning in 1769.
In 1772 when Gloucester learned that his wife was pregnant, he informed George III by letter. The king then ordered that an inquiry be made into the validity of the marriage. The inquiry took place six days before Maria gave birth to a daughter, Sophia Matilda, who was therefore recognized to be fully legitimate. A son, William Frederick, was born in Rome in 1776. The Gloucesters returned home in October 1777, allowing Maria to supervise her elder daughters as they reached a marriageable age. The daughters were much sought after as brides and were the subject of a famous portrait by Reynolds, which was commissioned by Horace Walpole, The Ladies Waldegrave (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh).
After returning to England, Gloucester had a career in the military. But, at sometime in the early 1780s he began a liaison with his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Almeria Carpenter (1752-1809), by whom he had a daughter. By the early 90s the Duke and Duchess had virtually separated. Gloucester died in 1805. Maria then moved to Oxford Lodge, Brompton Road, where she died two years later.