Lavinia Fenton was apparently born in 1708, the illegitimate daughter of a naval lieutenant named Beswick. Following his death at sea her mother married a Mr Fenton, who ran a coffee house near Charing Cross, and who sent Lavinia away to boarding school. In 1725 she attracted the attentions of a Portuguese nobleman who, having run up debts in catering for her desires, ended up in the Fleet Prison. It was after this, in 1726, that another unnamed aristocrat used his influence to launch her career on the London stage. Her first recorded appearance was at the Haymarket Theatre in the spring of 1726, after which she joined John Rich's company at Lincoln's Inn Fields. On 29 January 1728 she gave her first performance as Polly Peachum, the lawyer's daughter, in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), a role which guaranteed her subsequent fame.
Today, Lavinia's most celebrated appearance is in Hogarth's painting of the prison scene from Act III of The Beggar's Opera (Tate N02437), where she pleads with her father for the life of the highwayman Macheath. Foremost among the admirers of her performance was Charles Paulet, 3rd Duke of Bolton, who can be seen to the right of the stage in Hogarth's painting, exchanging glances with her. Bolton apparently fell in love with her at first sight. She became his mistress, bearing him three sons. Eventually, on the death of his wife in 1751, the Duke married Lavinia. Following his death in 1754, she became romantically involved with the Irish surgeon George Kelly. She died in January 1760 and is buried in the church of St. Alphege, Greenwich.
The sitter has traditionally been identified as Lavinia Fenton since 1797, when an engraving of this portrait was issued. However the identification is by no means secure, especially when the face is compared to other attested images, notably the engraving of 1728 by John Faber after a painting by John Ellys, an unattributed pastel portrait of 1745 (Einberg and Egerton 1988, pp.75-6, figs.24 and 23), and an oil portrait by Thomas Bardwell of c. 1750 (Compton Verney House Trust). The present portrait does not, as has been claimed, portray Lavinia Fenton in the role of Polly Peachum, her clothing here being far richer than the plain Quaker apparel which the part apparently demanded. It has been dated to the 1740s on stylistic grounds. However, it is possible it was painted somewhat later, around the time of her marriage to the Duke, whose portrait Hogarth is also supposed to have painted.
X-rays taken by Tate have revealed that Hogarth repainted whole sections of the composition, the face only remaining completely unchanged. Originally the sitter wore a small hat with feathers; in her right hand she held a piece of drapery, possibly a glove, while her left hand rested upon what appears to have been a basket of flowers. At some stage the canvas, which was originally square, has been cut down.
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth. British Painters born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery1988, pp.106-9, pl. 102 (colour)