Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), eldest daughter of Matthew Robinson and Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Drake, was a member of a group of women and men known as the ‘Bluestocking Circle’.

Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), eldest daughter of Matthew Robinson and Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Drake, was a member of a group of women and men known as the ‘Bluestocking Circle’. The term probably came from a visitor to one of the ‘salons’ or meetings, the botanist Edward Stillingfleet, arriving wearing worsted blue stockings and not the silk stockings expected as formal attire. Lady Crewe offered a different explanation, stating that the ladies wore blue stockings as a distinction in imitation of Madame de Polignac (1749-1793). As noted by Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; ‘bluestocking was probably meant to describe the informality of the assemblies and the emphasis placed on wit and conversation rather than on dress and etiquette’. [1]

These salons, often hosted by Elizabeth Montagu in her London home, were places where ideas could be exchanged on an informal level between both sexes. While all attendees shared an interest in the arts and literature, intellectual...

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Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), eldest daughter of Matthew Robinson and Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Drake, was a member of a group of women and men known as the ‘Bluestocking Circle’. The term probably came from a visitor to one of the ‘salons’ or meetings, the botanist Edward Stillingfleet, arriving wearing worsted blue stockings and not the silk stockings expected as formal attire. Lady Crewe offered a different explanation, stating that the ladies wore blue stockings as a distinction in imitation of Madame de Polignac (1749-1793). As noted by Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; ‘bluestocking was probably meant to describe the informality of the assemblies and the emphasis placed on wit and conversation rather than on dress and etiquette’. [1]

These salons, often hosted by Elizabeth Montagu in her London home, were places where ideas could be exchanged on an informal level between both sexes. While all attendees shared an interest in the arts and literature, intellectual ability was also a prerequisite attribute. For the women who attended, there was a balance to be struck between the female qualities that late eighteenth century society expected and a freedom and equality between the sexes where intellectual ability was not shackled by gender. This state of affairs was succinctly summed up by Hester Thrale (1741-1821) in a letter to Fanny Burney, where she described Montagu as 'Brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgement, critical in talk'.

The present portrait of Elizabeth Montagu may have been commissioned in April of 1740, when she wrote to her mother 'I sat for my picture to Zincke; I believe it will be very like me. I am in Anne Boleyn's dress'.[2]In 1742, she married the wealthy bachelor Edward Montagu, who was in his fifties. Their only child, a boy nicknamed ‘Punch’, died young and the couple remained friends but had no further children. Living apart from her husband for much of the year, Elizabeth was free to host regular salons at her large house in Hill Street, Mayfair. Visitors included Lord Lyttleton, Horace Walpole, Dr Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Hannah More and Fanny Burney.

In 2002, Christie’s auction house in London sold a box set with four enamels representing women of the ‘blue stocking’ circle.[3]The gold and enamel portrait box provided a fascinating insight into the close friendship of four women bound by their common interests and ideals. Elizabeth Montagu was included alongside Mary Delany and the Duchess of Portland. The enamel of Elizabeth in this box was later engraved. The present portrait and the version in the friendship box are similar but with subtle differences – although the costume is almost identical, Elizabeth faces a different direction and her face is a little thinner. It may have been a second version commissioned from Zincke taken after her marriage.

Zincke would have been an obvious choice for the women of the bluestocking circle. He was, by this date, the most successful enamellist in Britain. It was not easy to obtain a sitting with him, and in the 1740s when this portrait was commissioned he had raised his prices to deter all but the wealthiest clients. The medium of enamel provided a more permanent type of portrait than a portrait miniature, with the colours remaining as vibrant as the day the work was fired. Zincke often provided multiple images for his sitters. Shortly after the present portrait was painted, he retired from enamelling, his eyesight having deteriorated to an extent that he was no longer able to paint.

[1]ODNB online version, accessed 23/09/20.

[2]ed. E. J. ClimensonElizabeth Montagu, the queen of the blue-stockings: her correspondence from 1720 to 1761, 2 vols. (1906), p. 47

[3]The Dr Anton C.R.Dreesmann Collection of Gold Boxes, Objects of Vertu, Christie’s, London, 11 April 2002, Lot 773 (sold for £56,400). This box, now in the Stuart Collection, was included in the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery titled ‘Brilliant Women’. The fourth portrait in the box was suggested in that exhibition as representing the amateur artist Mary Howard, Lady Andover (1717-1803).



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