The Petworth ‘Beauties’ The Petworth ‘Beauties’, formerly amputated due to the whims of an Earl, now restored to their former glory. Conservation approved by the National Trust, with support from Philip Mould & Company. By Laurie Lewis
The two portraits come from the collection at Petworth House [National Trust], originally the southern seat of the influential Percy family and later an exemplary showcase of the English-Baroque having been transformed in the late-17th century by Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset (1667-1722) into an ostentatiously dramatic palace.
Dahl, a prominent Swedish artist who worked primarily in England for the duration of his career, was commissioned to paint the portraits of leading women at the late-Stuart court, with the aim of displaying them in the newly-conceived ‘Beauty Room’ at Petworth, work on which commenced in 1688.
The two portraits that are destined for the Tate exhibition depict Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire (1674-1725) (c.1696) and Lady Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde (1665-1733) (c.1690s). The two women were prominent figures at the Courts of King William and Queen Mary and later Queen Anne and highly respected women among the upper echelons of English aristocratic society. Their beauty was of course the dominant attribute of choice when considering the conception of the ‘Beauty room’ at Petworth and thus Dahl was the clear artist of choice, having established himself as the go-to painter of high society.
Curiously but also regrettably George O’Brien Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837), Petworth’s owner in the late-18th and early-19th century, had the legs of Lady Russell and Lady Somerset cut off and folded over the reverse of the canvas stretcher to make way for new paintings underneath in the ‘Beauty room’. Baroque beauty was compromised in favour of battle commemoration; the portrait’s reduction in size from full-lengths to three-quarter-lengths being justified by the Earl in order to have more hanging space for his pictures of Waterloo. The Earl’s now infamous exclamation ‘I will cut off their legs, I do not want their petticoats’ has now come to define the context surrounding this unfortunate decision.
Fortunately for posterity, those ordered to carry out the butchery of the splendid Dahl paintings did not discard the bottom sections of the canvasses but instead affixed them rather crudely with tacks and nails to the reverse side, hidden from view, but nonetheless lying in wait in case future custodians of Petworth wished to reaffix the lady’s legs.
This time has now arrived, and we are delighted to announce that with generous support from Philip Mould & Company, the National Trust have been able to carry out the restoration process and return the Duchesses to their former grandeur. J. Dimond Conservation have painstakingly restored the works and they will be on display at Tate Britain from Wednesday 5th February.