This accomplished drawing by John Smart portrays Frances Chambers, who was likely a patron of the artist from his time in India. Married to Robert Chambers in 1774, the couple undertook the long journey to Calcutta barely a month into their marriage. Alongside Warren Hastings, who was nominated governor-general and Sir Elijah Impey as chief justice, Robert Chambers had accepted appointment as second judge with a promise from Lord Bathurst, the lord chancellor, of succession to the chief justiceship should it become vacant.

Frances was only sixteen when she married and set off for India. Described by Samuel Johnson in a letter to James Boswell as 'exquisitely beautiful' [1], she was to face many hardships during her eighteen years in India. The couple had seven children, two of whom died while abroad.[2] Their eldest son was lost in the wreck of the Grosvenor off the coast of South Africa in 1782 at the age of five while on his...

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This accomplished drawing by John Smart portrays Frances Chambers, who was likely a patron of the artist from his time in India. Married to Robert Chambers in 1774, the couple undertook the long journey to Calcutta barely a month into their marriage. Alongside Warren Hastings, who was nominated governor-general and Sir Elijah Impey as chief justice, Robert Chambers had accepted appointment as second judge with a promise from Lord Bathurst, the lord chancellor, of succession to the chief justiceship should it become vacant.

Frances was only sixteen when she married and set off for India. Described by Samuel Johnson in a letter to James Boswell as 'exquisitely beautiful' [1], she was to face many hardships during her eighteen years in India. The couple had seven children, two of whom died while abroad.[2] Their eldest son was lost in the wreck of the Grosvenor off the coast of South Africa in 1782 at the age of five while on his way to England to begin his schooling. In all probability, Chambers was also the father of a natural daughter, Hannah Norris, born about 1764.

After being knighted by patent on 7 June 1777, Sir Robert continued to make steady progress in his career. It was not until 1791 that he was appointed chief justice and the following year Frances, the subject of the present drawing, returned to England with their youngest daughter Annie who was then three years old. Sir Robert remained in India for a further eight years, returning to join his wife in London in 1799. He died just a few years later, his health compromised by overwork and weakened by the various ailments he contracted in India.

It is likely that the Chambers family would have been aware of John Smart while in India and he certainly painted many members of their professional and social circle. Equally, Frances may also have been acquainted with Smart through her father, the sculptor (and founding member of the Royal Academy) Joseph Wilton (1722-1803). According to an inscription on the reverse, the present drawing appears to have been taken in 1807, the same year that Smart painted Annie in a watercolour miniature (previously with Philip Mould & Co.).[3] Frances and her daughter Annie may have visited John Smart in his house in affluent Fitzrovia where he had taken up residence in 1804. In this drawing Smart was responding to the fashion for highly finished drawings, where, like plumbagos of the 17th century, the drawing was to be exhibited as a work of art in its own right and not as a preparatory sketch.[4]

[1] Ed. B. Redford, The letters of Samuel Johnson, 5 vols. (1992–4) 2.127.

[2] Their eldest daughter, Maria (1774/5–1860), eventually married John Macdonald (1759-1831), military engineer and son of the Jacobite heroine Flora Macdonald.

[3] There also exists a preparatory drawing for this miniature by Smart which was sold by Christie’s in 1936 by Mrs Busteed, great-granddaughter of the artist, and is now believed to be in the Ford Collection. See Christie’s Catalogue December 17th, 1936 Sketches and Studies for Miniature Portraits by John Smart, the Property of MRS BUSTEED Great-granddaughter of the Artist, Appendix B, p.80; The Sixtieth Volume of the Walpole Society, The Ford Collection II, 1998, p.238.

[4] For a discussion of the use of John Smart’s drawings see Eds. B. Pappe and J. Schmieglitz-Otten, Portrait Miniatures; Artists, Functions and Collections, Celle, 2018, pp. 222-234

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500 Years of British Art