Catalogue entry

N01161 Lavinia Fenton, later Duchess of Bolton c. 1740–5

Oil on oval canvas, 762×628 (30×24 3/4)
Purchased by the National Gallery (R.C. Wheeler Fund) 1884; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1919
PROVENANCE ...; Samuel Ireland by 1797, when engraved for his Graphic Illustrations, and sold Sotheby's 7 May 1801 (454) £5 7s 6d bt William Seguier; ...; George Watson MP, of Erlestoke Park, nr Devizes, by 1808 (who assumed the additional surname of Taylor in 1815); Erlestoke Park sale, Robins, 9 July–1 August 1832, 19th Day, 24 July (52) £52 10 0; ...;? Frederick Gaye, who lent a ‘Duchess of Bolton’ by Hogarth to the BI 1850 (161); ...; Sir William Miles, Leigh Court, nr Bristol, where listed by Waagen 1854; by descent to his son Sir Philip Miles, sold Christie's 28 June 1884 (30) bt Agnew for the National Gallery
EXHIBITED BI 1814 (119, corrected in MS to 122 in some catalogues);? BI 1850 (161); International Exhibition, South Kensington 1862 (41); RA Winter 1875 (137); Tate Gallery 1951 (46); BC tour 1957 (33, repr. p.75); Painting and Sculpture in England 1700–1750, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool 1958 (19); Tate Gallery 1971 (109, repr.).
ENGRAVED 1. Line engraving by C. Apostool 1797, with above title for S. Ireland's Graphic Illustrations, II, 1799 2. Etching by T. Cook, in reverse, for Nichols & Steevens, 11, 1810
LITERATURE Ireland 1799, pp.49–56; Nichols & Steevens, I, 1808, pp.112, 425, II, 1810, p.287, III, 1817, pp.172, 207; Nichols 1833, p.387; Waagen 1854, III, p.185; Art Journal, 1885, p.76, repr.; Dobson 1907, p.211; DNB 1908, VI, XV (for Fenton and Paulet); Beckett 1949, p.48, no.115, repr.; Antal 1962, pp.58, 118, 252 n.60, pl.69a; Baldini & Mandel 1967, p.105, no.117, repr.; Paulson 1971, I, pp.181, 554 n.19; Webster 1979, pp.97, 184 no.110, repr. p.104

The history of the portrait before Apostool's engraving of 1797 is not known, nor are Samuel Ireland's reasons for identifying it as Lavinia Fenton (1708–60), the original Polly Peachum of The Beggar's Opera in 1728 (see N02437). As the style of painting is consistent with Hogarth's work of the 1740s, it certainly cannot represent her, as has been often claimed, in the part of Polly, nor does the rich apparel shown here agree with the deliberately plain costume of the part, which, we are told, affected ‘the simplicity of a modern quaker’ (Charles Macklin, Memoirs, 1804, p.48). If the painting does indeed represent the actress, it would show her, as Antal already noted, in her riper years. The only certain comparison available is the portrait mezzotinted by Faber in 1728 after John Ellys, and the resemblance is not entirely convincing, even allowing for differences in age and painting styles. A set of pastel portraits of the Duke, Lavinia and their sons, of c. 1738–40, datable from the ages of the children, still in Powlett family, also cannot offer conclusive evidence on grounds of likeness. (The compiler is indebted to Rear Admiral Powlett, Lord Bolton and Miss J.P. Smith for information on the Powlett/Paulet family).

Lavinia was the illegitimate child of a navy lieutenant named Beswick. Her mother, whose married name was Fenton, kept a fashionable coffee house near Charing Cross. The girl received a good boarding school education, but her good looks, vivacity and musical gifts gained her an early entry into the London stage, where she began to appear from 1726 onwards, always with great success. In January 1728 John Rich, the manager of Lincoln's Inn Theatre, engaged her as Polly in The Beggar's Opera, which became a great popular hit largely due to her performance: the success of Gay's new-style opera appears to have been in some doubt, until her affecting rendering of Polly's plea to her father to spare Macheath's life in ‘O! ponder well: be not severe’ carried the audience completely, launching the work on its unprecedented sixty-two-night run. Public interest was also greatly engaged by the fact that from the first night she so captivated Charles Paulet, 3rd Duke of Bolton (1685–1754), that he became a constant attendant at performances. At the end of the season Lavinia retired from the stage to become his mistress. In this role she is said to have been an accomplished and delightful companion and a model of discretion. She bore the Duke three illegitimate sons, who made successful careers in the army, navy and church (Collins, Peerage of England, 1812, II, pp.385–6, under Marquis of Winchester). On the death of his estranged wife in 1751, the Duke married Lavinia, and she became the second Duchess of Bolton. Widowed in 1754, her reputation was marred in the last years of her life by a liaison with an Irish surgeon named George Kelley, who became her executor and legatee. She died at Westcombe Park, Greenwich, in January 1760, and lies buried in the church of St Alphege.

The Duke is said to have been painted by Hogarth soon after his second marriage, but no such portrait is known. It is, however, just possible that this portrait might represent Lavinia round about this time, as a later dating of the painting cannot be ruled out.

Extensive pentimenti show that it was at some stage radically reworked by the artist himself, and recent X-rays suggest that only the face remains completely unchanged. In the original design the sitter wore a rakishly tilted hat with a tall tuft of feathers on the right, possibly with some flowers tucked under the brim on the left. She held up some drapery with her right hand and steadied an object, probably a basket of flowers, against it with her left; her decolletage was either V-shaped, or she wore a medallion on a long ribbon round her neck. The resulting over-crowding may be the reason why Hogarth altered it to the much simpler composition that it is now. Stretch marks show that the canvas was originally square and was presumably painted with a conventional false oval surround of which the inside edge is still visible. It is not known when the canvas was cut down to its present shape. The paint surface has suffered in the past, and it is probable that the dark shadows around her eyes would have been less apparent under the original glazes.

A portrait said to be of Lavinia Fenton by Hogarth was exhibited at the National Portrait Exhibition at South Kensington in 1867 (240, repr.), but as far as one can judge from the photograph there is nothing to substantiate either claim.

Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988