Benjamin Ferrers

Three Ladies of the Leman Family and their Dogs on a Terrace

1728

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 830 x 1310 mm
frame: 1034 x 1508 x 83 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1992
Reference
T06660

Summary

The three ladies shown outdoors on an imposing terrace have not been firmly identified, although it is possible that they are sisters, Elizabeth, Philippa and Mary, the three daughters of Thomas Leman of Wenhaston, Suffolk, and his wife Ruth Suckling. Their black and white dress, and their activities, seem to represent the loss and commemoration of a relative. The standing figure, wearing a half-mourning costume of black and white stripes, rests her hand consolingly on the shoulder of the lady next to her, in full mourning black. The book lying open on the table before the seated figure on the far right is most likely the Bible, from which edifying texts are being read for the company's mutual benefit. Ferrers has captured her during a thoughtful pause, her head resting on her hand in a conventional pose of melancholic contemplation.

The rather sober scene and sensible rectitude of the occupants of the terrace is offset by Ferrers' inclusion of appealing small details, such as the blue ribbon and bells of one of the small pet dogs. Two of the ladies (standing and centrally seated) hold a knotting shuttle and a spindle respectively, allowing appropriate reflections on their domestic virtues, while aloes in urns on either side of the terrace steps offer a sense of elegance. The terrace has as its backdrop a handsome Palladian house, while rooks circle in the sky high above the trees. The house, as well as the elaborate table with its dolphin legs, are most likely imagined genteel accoutrements, as Ferrers is known to have used them again in a portrait of a different family.

Ferrers, said to have been both deaf and dumb, was principally a portraitist although A Plant in a China Pot 1695 (Newbattle Abbey) could also be by him. Although slightly naïve in style, this signed and dated group portrait is a valuable documented example of a work by a native artist from the early eighteenth century - an age of growth and transition both artistically as well as socially. Its modest size and pretension suggests a gentry world of relaxed comfort and domesticity, but at the same time maintains the sitters as dignified individuals of moral probity.

Tabitha Barber
October 2000

Display caption

This portrait shows three ladies, possibly of the Leman family of Norfolk. The eldest is dressed in mourning and works a mechanical spinning staff; the lady next to her wears a black and white striped dress associated with half-mourning and holds a knotting shuttle. Their companion opposite interrupts her reading to take a pinch of snuff.

The stiff, formal poses of the sitters and imaginary setting were typical of most group portraits of the early eighteenth century. The emphasis was primarily on status and family dynasty rather than likeness or character.

Gallery label, September 2004