The unknown lady in Devis's portrait is seated in parkland on a circular bench constructed around the base of a tree, affording the occupant a shady retreat from the summer sun. By her side is a guitar, and in her hands the sheet music that she is to play. The instrument on the bench is an English guitar, 'a solo instrument used almost exclusively in the home and played virtually always by women' (quoted in M. Rosenthal, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough, New Haven and London, 1999, p.167). Any performance she might have given would have taken place in private, according to contemporary rules of etiquette. Here, she sits alone in the garden, perhaps to rehearse, as well as to study.

The woman wears a fashionable sacque dress, or robe à la française, a fashion, as the name suggests, imported from France. The woman's dress is of blue silk, the bodice trimmed with lines of ruched ribbon with cross-over silk lace trimming, the elbows decorously covered with matching silk lace ruffles. The dress and skirt (known as a petticoat) are trimmed with curving pleated ribbon, her headpiece or pompon made of blue flowers. The subject's upright pose can be partly explained by her bodice, made rigid by stays and laced tightly to flatten the bust, as demanded by the strictures of current fashion. The flowing silk train of her dress, which could cause discomfort when seated, can be seen tucked away behind and to her left. The general effect is reminiscent of the Advice to a Painter provided by the London Magazine two years earlier, in 1755:

Dress with art the graceful sack;

Ornament it well with gimping,

Flounces, furbelows and crimping;

Let of ruffles many a row,

Guard her elbows white as snow;

Knots below and knots above,

Emblems of the tyes of love.

The woman's face is decorously pale, it being then considered vulgar to expose the skin to direct sunlight, thus risking a tanned complexion. The shape of the face, like that of many of Devis's women, is a pronounced oval, an English preference that was commented on at the time by the French, whose ideal visage was more rounded, and who described the English taste as 'le visage de mouton', the face of a sheep (Aileen Ribeiro, The Art of Dress. Fashion in England and France 1750-1820, New Haven and London 1995, p.56).

Arthur Devis, who trained under the Flemish topographical painter Peter Tillemans (c.1684-1734), specialized in neatly executed small-scale portraits, particularly groups, which are known as 'conversation pieces'. His clientele was almost exclusively drawn from the gentrified middle classes, which he often portrayed outdoors at leisure. Although his repertory of poses was limited, and his figures can appear somewhat stilted, they none the less possess an unassuming charm and delicacy.

Further reading:

Ellen D'Oench, Arthur Devis and his Contemporaries, exhibition catalogue, Yale University, 1980

Martin Postle
November 2000