Dated 1748, this portrait shows an unknown young woman dressed in a late 16th century style costume. The mid-eighteenth century saw a resurgence of interest in dress from the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Stuart period. This was partially motivated by an interest in the romanticized stories of tragic figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots. Several enamel portraits of this period depict women dressed as Mary, particularly painted by Spencer’s contemporary, Christian Friedrich Zincke (an example of this can be found in The Portland Collection at the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire). It is not clear whether this type of fantasy dress was reserved for dressing up or for everyday wear. Here the sitter wears a small ruff collar with a gown embroidered with gold and a matching cap in an eighteenth-century interpretation of Tudor dress.

Little is known of Gervase Spencer’s early life and it is believed that he began as a footman, amusing himself with drawing only as a hobby.[1]...

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Dated 1748, this portrait shows an unknown young woman dressed in a late 16th century style costume. The mid-eighteenth century saw a resurgence of interest in dress from the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Stuart period. This was partially motivated by an interest in the romanticized stories of tragic figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots. Several enamel portraits of this period depict women dressed as Mary, particularly painted by Spencer’s contemporary, Christian Friedrich Zincke (an example of this can be found in The Portland Collection at the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire). It is not clear whether this type of fantasy dress was reserved for dressing up or for everyday wear. Here the sitter wears a small ruff collar with a gown embroidered with gold and a matching cap in an eighteenth-century interpretation of Tudor dress.

Little is known of Gervase Spencer’s early life and it is believed that he began as a footman, amusing himself with drawing only as a hobby.[1] Clearly possessed of a natural gift, but without the benefit of an artistic upbringing or background, he nevertheless attained a reputation as one of only two ‘Miniature Painters of Eminence in London’ in the mid-eighteenth century.[2]

It appears that Spencer was well acquainted with the young Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), later first President of the Royal Academy, who depicted Spencer painting a miniature, probably during the late 1740s. This oil portrait of the artist at work remained in Spencer’s collection until his death, and he etched the composition at least twice.[3] Spencer’s association with Reynolds perhaps demonstrates the level of support he received from those who were firmly part of the art establishment, and such relationships would have been essential in introducing him to patrons. The endorsement of Spencer as a professional artist by his contemporaries, such as fellow-miniaturist Samuel Finney (1719-98), is also perhaps testament to his tenacity in conquering the technical and artistic demands of enamelling, etching and painting on ivory.

[1] ‘Vertue Note Books’, The Walpole Society, vol. 22, 1933-34,(Oxford, 1936), p.151

[2] S. Finney, ‘Autobiographical Account’ in An historical survey of the parish of Wilmslow (London, 1785), p.267-287

[3] According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a painting of Spencer by Reynolds was in a sale of the miniaturist's effects in 1797, but its whereabouts is now unknown. There is a drawing in the British Museum [1881,0611.187] which is a copy of this portrait dating to c.1753-7.

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500 Years of British Art