The Petworth Beauties

Essay by Tabitha Barber

Michael Dahl’s set of seven full-length portraits of aristocratic ladies, displayed en masse in one of the magnificent new rooms at Petworth House created by Charles Seymour, sixth Duke of Somerset from the late 1680s, would have had considerable visual impact. Conceived as a coherent set, with each sitter standing or sitting outdoors against a backdrop of ornamental gardens, flowers, trees or architecture, and wearing rich, colourful silks, they must have impressed visitors with a collective display of sumptuous grandeur. Most likely inspired by Kneller’s 1690–1 set of Hampton Court Beauties (Royal Collection), painted for Mary II, they would have expressed, as did the rest of the new Petworth, an up-to-date knowledge of courtly fashion and taste. They still impressed in the 1730s when George Vertue visited Petworth on two occasions, in 1730 and 1738. He considered the ‘beauties’, as he referred to them, ‘the ornament’ of one of the fine new rooms. He ranked them, along with the set of Admirals (Royal Museums Greenwich), as the artist’s best works, and was confident that they would ‘alwayes be a public demonstration’ of Dahl’s superior skill.1

History has not treated the Petworth Beauties well, however. In 1824, in P. G. Patmore’s British Galleries of Art, the Beauty Room was a space to hurry through en route to the superior female portraits by Van Dyck, collected and commissioned by the Duchess of Somerset’s grandfather, Algernon Percy, tenth Earl of Northumberland.2 The fate of the pictures at the hands of the third Earl of Egremont in 1826–8 is well documented, when the room was significantly altered. In what seems now an astonishingly cavalier disregard for the portraits, they were reduced in size and removed to an upper tier, while battle pieces and sculpture, which collectively commemorated Wellington and the Napoleonic Wars, were displayed below. It was a decision that dramatically compromised the original conception (fig. 1).3 However, during the re-instatement of Lord Egremont’s scheme in 1995, and in a more recent inspection in 2019, when two of the pictures were removed from the panelling, it was discovered that, despite Lord Egremont’s direction to ‘cut off their legs’ as he did ‘not want their petticoats’, the lower portions of the pictures had in fact been retained and survive, hidden from view, folded behind the stretchers (fig. 2).4 An ambitious conservation programme is underway to return the portraits to their original full-length splendour, and the room to its earliest recorded appearance (fig. 3).

The Beauty Room, Petworth House

Figure 1.
The Beauty Room, Petworth House, Photograph. National Trust, Petworth House (NT 1367630).

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel. (All rights reserved)

Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire (midway through conservation)

Figure 2.
Michael Dahl, Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire (midway through conservation), This portrait, and that of the Duchess of Ormonde, were displayed in their original full length states in the exhibition 'British Baroque: Power and Illusion', Tate Britain 2020.

Digital image courtesy of National Trust, Petworth House. (All rights reserved)

Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire

Figure 3.
Michael Dahl, Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire, Conservator Jim Dimond at work on Michael Dahl’s 'Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire'. The upper portion of the portrait of Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormond is on the far left.

Digital image courtesy of National Trust/Rah Petherbridge. (All rights reserved)

Frustratingly, the very substantial Petworth archive sheds no light on the commissioning of the Petworth Beauties. There are no bills that link directly to them, no workmen’s accounts for a room that was definitely conceived for them, and no inventory that mentions them until 1749, taken after the seventh Duke of Somerset’s death, long after the pictures were commissioned. Indeed, precisely when the pictures were painted is not entirely clear. Added to that, a number of inherited assumptions about the set stubbornly persist, first and foremost that they represent ladies of the court of Queen Anne, chosen for their beauty, and were commissioned by the Duke of Somerset as a tribute to her. Through taking a further look at the circumstantial evidence that surrounds the commission, and considering the works within the context of what contemporaries would have understood and expected of a set of Beauty portraits, as well as within the framework of kinship, friendship and professional networks, it is hoped that answers to key questions, and an alternative motivation for commissioning the series, can be advanced.

Before turning to the complications of when, how and where the works were first displayed, and by whom and why they were commissioned, it seems appropriate to take a look at who the portraits represent. In the room today, as was the case in a 1749 picture list that names the sitters in the portraits for the first time,5 there are seven works by Dahl and one by Kneller: by Dahl, Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire (1674–1725) (fig. 4), Anne Capel, Countess of Carlisle (1674–1752) (fig. 5), Barbara Talbot, Viscountess Longueville (1671–1763), Juliana Alington, Viscountess Howe (1665–1747), Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde (1664–1733) (fig. 6), Jane Temple, Countess of Portland (1672–1751) (fig. 7) and Margaret Sawyer, Countess of Pembroke (d. 1706); and by Kneller, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (1660–1744) (fig. 8). The portraits represent some of the most powerful individuals and grandest noble families of the time. Formerly among the artistic showpieces of the house, there must have been an objective by their collective display.

  • Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire

    Figure 4.

    Michael Dahl, Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire, c.1695-1700. Oil on canvas. National Trust, Petworth House (NT 486212)

    Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images (NT1000096). (All rights reserved)

  • Lady Anne de Vere Capel, Countess of Carlisle

    Figure 5.

    Michael Dahl, Lady Anne de Vere Capel, Countess of Carlisle, c.1695-1700. Oil on canvas. National Trust, Petworth House (NT 486213).

    Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images (NT1000097). (All rights reserved)

  • Lady Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormond

    Figure 6.

    Michael Dahl, Lady Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormond, c.1695-1700. Oil on canvas. National Trust, Petworth House (NT 486210)

    Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images (NT1000095). (All rights reserved)

  • Jane Temple, Countess of Portland

    Figure 7.

    Michael Dahl, Jane Temple, Countess of Portland, c.1695-1700. Oil on canvas. National Trust, Petworth House (NT 485580).

    Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty (NT26805). (All rights reserved)

  • Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough

    Figure 8.

    Godfrey Kneller, Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough, 1705. Oil on canvas. National Trust, Petworth House (NT 486211).

    Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images/Tim Stephens. (All rights reserved)

For the earliest account of the pictures one can go back no further than George Vertue who, in addition to visiting Petworth, was given information by the artist Thomas Murray about the circumstances behind the involvement of Dahl. Vertue was told that the pictures were commissioned by the Duke of Somerset following his falling out with the artist John Closterman who had been working for the Duke as a portrait painter and art agent. On Closterman’s advice the Duke had purchased at auction from ‘Mr Davis’ for 200 guineas a Guercino of Lot and his Daughters. The Duke was late in paying, and at a time of rampant guinea inflation Davis demanded more money, which the Duke refused. Closterman then stepped in and purchased the work himself. This ‘so disobliged the Duke’, writes Vertue, that, from his friend, Closterman ‘became his greatest enemy and from him went to Mr Dahl’. Dahl was commissioned to paint Somerset’s portrait, versions of which were given to ‘several persons of distinction’ who in turn reciprocated the gesture by agreeing to sit to Dahl for the Duke.

While Vertue can be notoriously unreliable, elements of this story can be partly corroborated: guinea inflation reached its height in the summer of 1695, before the great recoinage of 1696; ‘Mr Davis’ can be identified as Edward Davis who held art auctions in the early and mid-1690s;6 and Dahl was certainly working for Somerset by this date as there is a payment to him in 1696 for a head-and-shoulders portrait of the Duke, which was given to Sir William Temple.7 While there is no further evidence that Somerset presented his portrait to prospective sitters (his portrait is not known in multiple versions) the other aspects of Vertue’s account that appear authentic can be used to provide an earliest possible date for the Petworth Beauties of 1695–6. This would accord with the stylistic appearance of the pictures and the fashions worn by the women (loose silk gowns and high hairstyles), which suggest a later 1690s dating.

Precisely when the Dahl Beauties were installed in the Beauty Room, whether this is their original location, and whether the manner of their display, as recorded in inventories of 1749 and 1764,8 was the original mode of presentation, are troublesome issues that are not easy to answer. Vertue’s accounts of the pictures are at variance with information contained in the inventories, as well as with physical evidence in the portraits themselves. Vertue is insistent, on four separate occasions, that all the portraits were full lengths. In 1730 he recorded (in a space preceded by the hall, and afterwards the staircase, so clearly the current Beauty Room) six full-length Dahls as well as the full-length Kneller of the Duchess of Marlborough.9 In 1738 he noted seven full-length Dahls, and again the full-length Kneller.10 The slightly later inventories make it clear, however, that of the eight portraits in the room, seven of which were by Dahl and the other by Kneller, two of the Dahls were in fact three-quarter lengths and functioned as overdoors.

Examination of the two overdoors in 1995 (the Countess of Portland and Countess Howe, the same pictures recorded in these positions in 1764) revealed that they are slightly wider than the other pictures and have not been folded, indicating that they were designed for a specific space.11 The inventories also record the presence of mirrors in the room – six narrow, vertical full-length mirrors, each made up of three panels, between the full-length portraits, a pier glass between the windows, and an overmantel mirror – and, above the full-length portraits, five figurative panel paintings with scenes of putti, based on the story of Cupid and Psyche.12 The latter were copies by Symon Stone after works by Polidoro da Caravaggio that had been in the Northumberland collection but returned to Charles II at the Restoration.13 The mirrors, portraits and panel paintings were set into the panelling, which was painted white, which provided a deliberate unity to the scheme.

Evidence for this layout was revealed in 1995 and 2019 when the removal of portraits from the panelling exposed the voids of the previous scheme (fig. 9).14 It is clear that, with the mirrors between the portraits, there would have been no space in the room for Vertue’s seven or eight full lengths – but whether this scheme was the original, or one that replaced an earlier one, is unclear. Despite, seemingly, recording the number of Dahls incorrectly, the fact that Vertue consistently refers to them collectively, calling them ‘Ladyes’ and ‘beauties’, while referring to the Kneller separately, is important. Earlier in date than the Kneller, which is signed and dated 1705,15 they clearly presented a united visual identity. The time Dahl took to complete the commission is a point to be considered, but that they were conceived as a set for collective display, perhaps in another location before being moved to the Beauty Room, remains a possibility.16

Photograph showing voids the in wall of the Beauty Room when portraits were removed from the panelling

Figure 9.
Photograph showing voids the in wall of the Beauty Room when portraits were removed from the panelling, National Trust, Petworth House (NT 1454183)

Digital image courtesy of National Trust Images/James Dobson (All rights reserved)

The Beauty Room with its mirrors was nevertheless a scheme that was most likely introduced during the Duke of Somerset’s lifetime. First described as the Beauty Room in the 1764 inventory, the space seems always to have functioned as a dining room. If the model and inspiration for the Petworth Beauties was Kneller’s set of Hampton Court Beauties, which have always been displayed within a dining context, it seems inevitable that Petworth followed suit. Originally, the Hampton Court Beauties were displayed in Mary II’s lavishly appointed Water Gallery on the river, in the upstairs gallery where, accompanied by the portraits, she dined surrounded by massed displays of blue and white china, lacquerwork and mirrors (the portraits are of varying widths, suggesting they were designed to fit particular spaces). In the year 1700 to 1701 they were installed in the main palace, in William III’s new private Eating Room below Stairs. There they would have surrounded diners as they sat at an oval table, while a marble-topped table carried a mass of impressive plate and a large pier glass between the windows reflected candlelight.17 Such a scenario can be imagined at Petworth.

When the ‘King of Spain’ (Archduke Charles of Austria, the Habsburg claimant to the Spanish throne, later Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor) visited Petworth in 1703 the magnificence of the house, although ‘not yet near finish’t’, was described, with its ‘exceeding rich Furniture, fine Pictures, Carving, &c’. The company dined in style, around a large oval table, ‘with so much Splendour and Profusion, and yet with so much Decency and Order’.18 It is not known if this room contained the Petworth Beauties, but the scene conjures the context in which the pictures were intended to be enjoyed. Reflecting light from the windows as well as glittering candlelight, the mirrors offered the curious opportunity for viewers, while looking at the full length ‘Beauties’, to catch a full-length glimpse of themselves. They added a note of wit and performance to the room, as well as luxurious glamour. A large pier glass between the windows would have been an expected feature of a dining room.

In 1698 on a visit to Chippenham near Newmarket, Lord Orford’s recently restyled house, Celia Fiennes was hugely struck by the looking-glass panels, the largest she had ever seen. In the dining room, between the windows, she noted ‘from ye top to ye bottom 2 panels in breadth and 7 in Length so it shews one from top to toe’.19 At this date large-scale mirror glass was a highly expensive luxury commodity and, for Celia Fiennes, seeing herself in full length was obviously a novelty. In the Beauty Room the act of seeing oneself in full length alongside full-length portraits was a conceit not totally dissimilar to the comparisons that were possible between portrait and actual sitter in the Water Gallery at Hampton Court, as described by Daniel Defoe. ‘The queen had here her gallery of beauties, being the pictures, at full length, of the principal ladies attending upon her majesty, or who were frequently in her retinue’, he wrote, ‘and this was the more beautiful sight, because the originals were all in being, and often to be compared with their pictures.’20

The Hampton Court Beauties provide an important precedent for their dining context and for the fact that they were commissioned at the same time and conceived as a set.21 All evidence points to the Petworth Dahls also having been commissioned at the same time, and intended as a harmonious group. As stated above, Vertue always refers to the Dahls collectively (‘all of full length being several ladies’). The pictures demonstrate a uniform aesthetic, with the sitters shown outdoors, against wooded or garden backdrops, with the hint of fine mansions, architecture, sculpture and urns with beautiful flowers. The ladies are similarly dressed, in loose silk gowns of gold, red, pink and Dahl’s trademark pale emerald green. Their hair, curled and piled high above their heads, places them in the later 1690s. Standing out from the crowd is the portrait of the Duchess of Marlborough (see fig. 8). Not only is this by a different artist, but it shows the Duchess indoors, wearing the robes of a peeress, and with her key of office, as Queen Anne’s Groom of the Stole and Mistress of the Robes, clearly visible at her waist. Such elements of the real world are absent from the portraits by Dahl. The stark difference emphasises even further the coherence of the Dahls as a set and the Kneller as an addition. Nevertheless, the Kneller must have been commissioned with the Beauties series in mind, as its size exactly matches the full-length Dahls, which are of unusual, larger than average dimensions. It is the presence of the Duchess of Marlborough within the set, however, and the sitter’s strong associations with Queen Anne, that has contributed to a confused reading of the Dahls and the motivation behind the commission.22

The Duke of Somerset was the second highest-ranking peer in the realm, his wife the sole heiress of the great estates of the Earls of Northumberland, and much has been written about the ‘Proud Duke’ and his sense of rank.23 On a visit to Petworth in 1694 arranged by Sir William Temple, the Swiss traveller, later author, Béat de Muralt was overwhelmed by the ‘magnificent style of life, where there are more than one hundred servants’ in a ‘Palace fairer than that of the King’.24 The vastly expensive transformation of Petworth into a magnificent baroque palace commensurate with such status involved leading craftsmen and artists, and the fashion and taste of the court was closely followed. To take the Hampton Court Beauties, a set of portraits imbued with courtly and aristocratic notions of fashionable beauty, as a model for a like set at Petworth would have been ample demonstration of insider knowledge.

In their important analysis of series of Beauties, in particular the Windsor Beauties, Catharine MacLeod and Julia Marciari Alexander have demonstrated how such sets celebrated the preoccupation of court society with beauty, notoriety and prominence, and how they functioned within the visual culture of the later seventeenth century.25 The Petworth pictures, as with the Hampton Court set, were no doubt commissioned with the intention of creating a Beauties series in the tradition of their famous forerunners. Just as Defoe described the women in the Hampton Court set as ‘the principal ladies attending upon her majesty, or frequently in her retinue’, Celia Fiennes, who also saw them when they were hanging in the Water Gallery, described them as ‘ffine pictures of ye Court Ladies drawn be Nellor’.26 Anne Capel, Countess of Carlisle, whose sister-in-law, Mary Bentinck, Countess of Essex, had been one of the sitters, recalled that the Queen’s intention had been to represent the most beautiful women at court.27 As one of the Petworth sitters Lady Carlisle (see fig. 5) provides an important link between the two sets. She would have been conversant with how such a series operated, and would have understood the layered flattery that was involved: not only was there the distinction of having been chosen for inclusion in such a set, but the pictures themselves flattered their subjects through their theme of beauty.

By the date of the Kneller and Dahl pictures, rather than celebrating notoriety the emphasis had shifted to honouring dignity and virtue. In poetry of the period artists, especially when painting distinguished women, were presented as competing with nature in the creation of true beauty, while beauty itself was exalted as an attribute that mirrored virtue. In Dahl’s portraits there is an intended correlation between the beauty of the sitters and the beauty of nature (the trees and flowers, including roses, symbol of beauty), which in turn mirrors the inner virtue of the individuals. The shimmering silks and fine architecture enhance the idea of dignity and nobility. While Carlisle’s beauty was honoured in Kit-Cat Club toasts,28 another of the Petworth Beauties, the Duchess of Ormonde, was also the subject of verse (see fig. 5). In The Court at Kensington: a poem on the most celebrated beauties there, 1700, Ormonde’s beauty and ‘graceful mien’, is praised as attracting people’s gaze, ‘an air of grandeur’ is described as shining through her every part, while ‘in her beauteous form is placed the noblest heart’.29 More extravagantly, in To Her Grace the Duchess of Ormond, published in the same year, Dryden celebrates the powerful charms of Ormonde’s beauty, which he presents as honouring and elevating the distinction of her family; and in a letter to her he claims that during her absence in Ireland, England will have a famine of beauty until her return.30

In the same way that exaggerated poetic praise of beauty, addressed to or about noblewomen, was a device with an ulterior motive, so too a series of Beauty portraits must have been understood as a statement beyond simple flattery of the individuals concerned. Queen Anne chose her Maids of Honour for their beauty and education, to elevate and enliven her court,31 and Mary II’s Hampton Court Beauties must have been intended as expressive of the tone of hers. MacLeod and Marciari Alexander have demonstrated that earlier sets, for example the Windsor Beauties, commissioned either by the Duchess of York, or jointly with the Duke of York, or the Van Dycks commissioned and collected by the Duchess of Somerset’s grandfather, Algernon Percy, tenth Earl of Northumberland, only later came to be regarded as sets of Beauties. As well as celebrated women, the sitters included relatives, friends and wives of friends, thus illustrating the personal affiliations of the respective patrons.32 This element of personal association is important when considering the Petworth Beauties. Vertue never refers to the Petworth Beauties as representing ladies of the court of Queen Anne (only as ‘ladies’ and ‘beauties’) but by 1856 they had come to be described so, in a printed catalogue of the pictures at Petworth (‘the Beauty Room, so called from containing the Portraits (in pannels) of several Ladies of the Court of Queen Anne, who were remarkable for their beauty’).33 The move into the Beauty Room in 1828–30 of the portrait of Queen Anne, hung as the overmantel, as if presiding over her ladies, opposite the portrait of the Duchess of Marlborough, the Queen’s personal friend who headed her bedchamber, can only have reinforced such an assumption in the minds of future generations. But through a proper assessment of the individuals who make up the series, personal connections with the Somersets quickly become apparent. Choosing the sitters, and associating them with the conventions of such sets representing beautiful women, was a way of flattering not only the individual women but also their husbands and families. Such flattery would have cemented kinship and friendship networks and, hung together, the portraits would have been a rich visual advertisement of the personal ‘court’ of the Duke and Duchess of Somerset.

The tradition of identifying the Petworth Beauties with ladies of Anne’s court is unsurprising given the Somersets’ close association with the Queen, both when she was Princess of Denmark and after her accession in 1702, when they were appointed Master of the Horse and a Lady of the Bedchamber respectively. Only two of the Petworth sitters ever held court appointments, however: along with the Duchess of Somerset, Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire (then Marchioness of Hartington) and Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde were appointed Ladies of the Bedchamber.34 But both women, along with Anne Capel, Countess of Carlisle, were in fact the Duchess of Somerset’s cousins, while Juliana Alington, Viscountess Howe, was the Duke’s cousin. The titles of the ladies inscribed on the pictures and recorded in the inventories are those by which they were last known as opposed to those they held when painted,35 so whether Jane Temple is painted as Lady Berkeley (her husband, Admiral Berkeley, Lord Berkeley of Stratton died in 1697) or as Lady Portland (she married the first Earl of Portland as his second wife in 1700) is unclear (see fig. 7). Portland’s daughter by his first wife, Mary Bentinck (as mentioned above, one of the Hampton Court sitters), married in 1698 the second Earl of Essex, who was the Duchess of Somerset’s cousin, thus providing a kinship link. But she was also the niece of Lady Giffard, Sir William Temple’s sister, who was a personal friend of the Duchess of Somerset. Giffard and Sir William Temple were frequent visitors to Petworth; Sir William, as already stated above, was the recipient in 1696 of the Duke’s head-and-shoulders portrait by Dahl; and in a letter dated 1697 Jane Temple’s absence from Petworth that summer was being lamented.36 The portrait could, therefore, equally well acknowledge that friendship circle. Margaret Sawyer, Lady Pembroke and Barbara Talbot, Viscountess Longueville are more difficult to fathom. Margaret Sawyer died in 1706 and the eighth Earl of Pembroke married again, in 1708, Barbara Slingsby, Viscountess Howe’s cousin; and then in 1725 he married as his third wife, Mary Scrope, her daughter. These later intermarriages between the families of the Petworth sitters and the Duke of Somerset must indicate friendship or professional alliances the details of which are now obscure.

The genealogical connections and interweavings, which seem complicated to us today, would have been fully understood and keenly followed by those concerned. That the Beauties series functioned as a dazzling visual demonstration and celebration of these networks was the point. Whether those not chosen were offended (as apparently was the case with the Hampton Court Beauties) is not known37, but the portrait set, steeped in messages about beauty, virtue, grace and nobility, expressed in a courtly visual aesthetic, flattered the sitters and their families and advertised, in their own house, the distinguished social and professional connections personal to the Somersets.

A final suggestion is that the Petworth Beauties were commissioned jointly by the Duke and Duchess of Somerset, not by the Duke alone as previously supposed. That women took an active role in the commissioning of pictures is being increasingly demonstrated, and the Duchess of Somerset is no exception. Bills and accounts within the Petworth archive are evidence of this. In relation to Dahl, while the Duke of Somerset’s presentation of his head-and-shoulders portrait to Sir William Temple in 1696 is known, the Duchess of Somerset’s payment to Dahl in 1700 for two three-quarter-length portraits has been overlooked.38 The payment can almost certainly be linked to bills for the delivery of the Duchess’s portrait to two of the Petworth Beauties sitters, Lady Howe and Lady Carlisle.39 The gift of portraits was a well-established facet of the performance of ‘friendship’, a mark of association, either familial or professional, that strengthened relationships and bound people together. Also an aspect of the obligations of friendship was the reciprocal gesture, as described by Vertue, of the recipients of the Duke’s portrait by Dahl agreeing to sit for their portraits. No direct evidence links the Duke and Duchess of Somerset’s gifts of their portraits to the Petworth Beauties commission. The Duke of Somerset had a high regard for Temple (on his death in 1699 the Duchess wrote to Lady Giffard, ‘my Lord and I have lost a friend wee had a very real esteem and kindnesse for’),40 and both this and the Duchess’s presentations of her portrait could simply be gifts between friends and family. But given that so many of the sitters in the set are the Duchess’s relations, and taking into account her connection with previous sets of Beauties (her mother was a Windsor Beauty, her cousin a Hampton Court Beauty), as well as the association of both those Beauties series with female patronage, it is a reasonable expectation that she was at least involved in the selection of the sitters.


  • Tabitha Barber is Curator of British Art, 1500–1750, at Tate Britain, and specialises, in particular, on the early modern period. She has worked on many exhibitions, most recently, British Baroque: Power and Illusion, Tate Britain 2020, which explored the associations between art, power and magnificence in the period 1660-1714. She was a member of the AHRC-funded Iconoclasms Network (University of Birmingham/Tate) in the lead-up to the exhibition Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm (Tate Britain 2013); the AHRC Court, Country, City 1660-1735 project (University of York/Tate); and the Getty-funded technical research project which examined Tudor and Stuart works in the Tate collection. She has mounted numerous in-focus displays at Tate Britain, including Andrea Soldi and the English Levant Merchants, 2008-9, and William Dobson: Artist of the Civil War, 2018-19. Tabitha specialise in the work of Mary Beale. She curated the 1999 Geffrye Museum exhibition on Beale, and is currently working on a volume of primary sources related to her (Walpole Society, forthcoming) as well as a monograph. Her research on early modern women artists is reflected in recent Tate acquisitions of works by Beale, Carlile and Killigrew. Future projects include an exhibition on Tudor art, and an exhibition on historic women artists.


  1. Vertue’s notes made on his visits, and additional information can be found in Vertue Notebooks II, Walpole Society, vol. 20, 1931–2, p. 81 (1730 visit); Vertue Notebooks III, Walpole Society, vol. 22, 1933–4, p. 43; Vertue Notebooks IV, Walpole Society, vol. 24, 1935–6, pp. 21, 149 (1738 visit). An earlier 1728 visit seems to be an indexing error, Penshurst having been muddled with Petworth.

  2. P. G. Patmore, British Galleries of Art, London: G. & W. B. Whittaker, 1824, pp. 89–91. Patmore misattributes them to Kneller and Lely, misidentifies them as ‘Charles’s Beauties’, and accordingly makes a moral criticism of them (‘no difference between a court beauty and a courtezan’).

  3. George Jones, Sir Francis Chantrey RA: Recollections of his Life, Practice and Opinions, London: Edward Moxon, Dover Street,1849, pp. 121–2.

  4. Katya Belaia and Nicole Ryder, condition report for Lady Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde and Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire, January 2019. Rather than folded, the canvas and lining of the Duchess of Devonshire was shown to be cut, possibly having been scored through to make folding easier.

  5. Pictures in His Grace the Duke of Somerset's Seat at Petworth in Sussex, 1749, Northumberland papers, Alnwick Castle.

  6. Antony Griffiths, with information from Richard Stephens, biography of Edward (Le) Davis, British Museum website, (accessed 30 August 2018).

  7. Petworth House Archives (hereafter PHA) 221, Duke of Somerset’s Receipt Books, 6 January 1695, ‘To Mr Dayle for the drawing my Pictor beeing a heade which I gave to Sir William Temple – £10’. Cited in Christopher Rowell, ‘“Reigning Toasts”: Portraits of Beauties by Van Dyck and Dahl at Petworth’, Apollo, December 2003, p. 47, n. 70.

  8. PHA 6263; PHA 6266.

  9. Vertue Notebooks II, 1931–2, p. 81, n. 1.

  10. Vertue Notebooks IV, 1935–6, p. 149.

  11. Sarah Staniforth, condition report 8 February 1995. The order in which the named sitters are recorded in the 1764 inventory has been taken to indicate their disposition within the room.

  12. The 1764 inventory itemises ‘6 Pannells of Glass with 3 Plates each’ and ‘5 Pieces of Painting in Pannels over ye other Pictures’. In addition, there was a chimney glass with three plates, and a pier glass with four plates. The 1749 inventory does not mention the vertical mirrors between the portraits – perhaps an oversight.

  13. The Polidoro copies are in the private collection at Petworth, and the originals still in the Royal Collection.

  14. Rowell, 2003, pp. 39–47, especially pp. 42–7; James Finlay, initial report and analysis of the Petworth Beauty Room interior decoration, unpublished, 2019.

  15. The portrait at Woburn Abbey of the Duchess of Marlborough is usually considered the prime version of this portrait type (after which John Smith’s mezzotint was taken), while the pose is based on a portrait of Queen Anne. The mezzotint, the portrait of Queen Anne, and the Petworth picture are all dated 1705.

  16. A bill dated July 1705 mentions alterations made to the dining room that year, possibly a reference to the Beauty Room. See Rowell, 2003, p. 44 and n. 59.

  17. Simon Thurley, Hampton Court: A Social and Architectural History, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004, pp.172–4 for the Water Gallery, p. 194 for the Eating Room below Stairs. Bills for fitting out the latter are dated 1700–1. I am grateful to Jeannie Chapel for information from royal inventories. The Knellers are first mentioned in the Queen Anne inventory, c.1705–10, in the Eating Room below Stairs. Wissing’s three-quarter-length portrait of Mrs Lawson, then ascribed to Lely, hung with them, later changed to the Wissing of Mary II.

  18. ‘An Account of the King of Spain’s Reception at Petworth, Windsor &c’, in Abel Boyer, The history of the reign of Queen Anne: digested into annals, London, 1704, vol. 2, appendix, pp. 11–13.

  19. The journeys of Celia Fiennes, 1685–c.1712 are available online. For her visit to Chippenham in 1698, see (accessed 30 August 2018).

  20. Daniel Defoe, A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journeys, Letter III, 1724, pp. 6–8.

  21. Oliver Millar, The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Royal Collection, London: Phaidon, 1963, pp. 146–8.

  22. For speculation about the dating of the Beauty Room set as a result of the Duchess of Marlborough being part of it, and her portrait being the last in the series, see Rowell, 2003, pp. 43–4.

  23. R. O. Bucholz, Charles Seymour, Sixth Duke of Somerset, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2008, (accessed 30 August 2018).

  24. Charles Gould, ed., Beat de Muralt, Lettres sur les Anglais et les Francais et les Voyages (1725), first published Paris: Honoré Champion, 1933, reprinted Geneva: Slatkine, 1974, pp. 162–3.

  25. Catharine MacLeod and Julia Marciari Alexander, ‘The “Windsor Beauties” and the Beauties Series in Restoration England’, in Julia Marciari Alexander and Catharine MacLeod, eds, Politics, Transgression and Representation at the Court of Charles II, Studies in British Art 18, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 81–122.

  26. Celia Fiennes, journey to Hampton Court, available online, (accessed 30 August 2018).

  27. Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting …, ed. R. N. Wornum, 3 vols, vol. 2, London: Chatto and Windus, 1876, pp. 206–7.

  28. Ophelia Field, ‘Kit-Cat Toasts’, Web Appendix to The Kit-Cat Club, 2008,

  29. The Court at Kensington: a poem on the most celebrated beauties there, London, 1700.

  30. Paul Hammond and David Hopkins, eds, The Poems of John Dryden, vol. 5, 1697–1700, London and New York: Routledge, 2014, pp. 91–2.

  31. Frances Harris, ‘“The Honourable Sisterhood”: Queen Anne’s Maids of Honour’, British Library Journal, vol. 19, 1993, p. 190.

  32. MacLeod and Marciari Alexander, 2007, pp. 102–5, 109–12.

  33. Catalogue of Pictures at Petworth House, Sussex, 1856, pp. 22–3.

  34. John Sainty and Robert Bucholz, Database of Court Officers 1660–1837, Lord Chamberlain’s Office, (accessed 30 August 2018).

  35. The date of the inscriptions is not known, but they were added before the pictures were altered to three-quarter lengths in 1826–8.

  36. Letter from Lady Giffard to Jane Temple, Lady Berkeley, 30 October 1698, printed in Julia G. Longe, Martha Lady Giffard: Her Life and Correspondence, London: George Allen and Sons, 1911, p. 208. For other letters, including one written from Petworth, see pp. 196–230.

  37. Walpole, 1876, n. 26. The Countess of Carlisle recalled Katherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester explaining to Queen Mary that choosing the beauties offended those who were omitted, for ‘if the King were to ask for the portraits of all the wits in his court, would not the rest think he called them fools?’.

  38. For the portrait of the Duke see n. 7; for the Duchess’s payment, see Dahl’s acknowledgment for receipt of £43 for two half-length (today’s three-quarter-length) pictures, 29 June 1700, Duchess of Somerset’s Bills, PHA 274.

  39. In February and April 1700 the Duchess of Somerset’s servant was paid ‘for carrying her Graces Pictuor to the Lady How’, and a ‘Pictuor to ye Lady Carlile’. I am very grateful to Amy Lim for sharing these details with me. Her DPhil, forthcoming, will shed further light on the patronage activities of the Duchess of Somerset.

  40. Letter from the Duchess of Somerset to Lady Giffard, on Sir William Temple’s death, 4 February 1699, in Longe, 1911, n. 33.



by Tabitha Barber
20 November 2020
House Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Tabitha Barber, "The Petworth Beauties", Art and the Country House,