Philip Jean 1755-1802
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...
This portrait miniature shows Maria Walpole, 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 unmarried, her mother being from a humble background (the daughter of a Darlington postmaster and apprenticed to a milliner who arranged her first sexual liaison with Edward Walpole). Despite their illegitimate status, the couple’s three daughters were treated by the rest of the Walpole family as if legitimate and given the family name. Maria’s uncle, Horace Walpole, regarded her as a great beauty...
Maria’s first marriage was to James Waldegrave 2nd Earl of Waldegrave in 1759, making her Countess Waldegrave. They had three children together, the youngest of whom became the great grandmother of Charles Spencer, 6th Earl of Spencer who was the great grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales. Tragically Maria’s husband died only four years after their marriage of smallpox leaving her very little fortune and three young girls to raise.
Widowed at the tender age of 27, she was expected to marry again, if only to relieve her financial situation. As Horace Walpole told Sir Horace Mann, “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 several 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 arrived before the law could be changed and was therefore recognised as legitimate.A son, William Frederick, was born in Rome in 1776.The couple 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).
Maria Walpole’s unconventional upbringing and complex love-life possibly contributed to the fascination which surrounded her, and she occupied a central role in British aristocratic society during the second half of the eighteenth century. When young, she was renowned for her beauty, but she became equally renowned for her lively wit.
Maria is painted here by the Jersey artist Philip Jean, who may have been commissioned by her husband – there are portrait miniatures by Jean in the Royal Collection of the Duke and also of Princess Sophia Matilda. The portrait of Sophia Matilda is dated 1791, a date which fits well with Maria’s costume in the present work. Shown here in her mid-thirties, she is a little fuller in the face than the many early oil portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds, but still retains the beauty which rendered her a sensation in her early youth. Jean, born in St Ouen, Jersey, had served in the navy under Admiral Lord Rodney before becoming a professional miniature painter. He exhibited many royal subjects over the course of his career at the Royal Academy, including miniatures of the Duke of Clarence (1790), the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester (1790 and 1792), Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester (1791 and 1795) and Prince William of Gloucester (1792 and 1802). He also painted full-length portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte. It is possible that the present work was one exhibited by Jean at the Royal Academy in 1791/92.
 The first miniature, of Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, is attributed to Jean but stylistically would appear to be by the artist [RCIN 421070]; the second, of Princess Sophia Matilda, is fully signed and dated 1791 [RCIN 420956]