The five year old Lady Frances Gordon sat to Reynolds for this unusual portrait in July and August 1786, and again in March 1787. Reynolds generally had very few portrait appointments during the summer months, reserving this time for work on character studies (known as 'fancy pictures') and subject pictures. It is not perhaps surprising, therefore, that the present composition, which is composed of a series of studies of Frances Gordon's head from five different angles, is far more reminiscent of Reynolds's fancy pictures than his portraits of named sitters.
Frances Isabella Keir Gordon (1782-1831) was the only daughter of Lord William Gordon (1744-1823) and his wife Frances Ingram (1761-1841), second daughter of Charles, 9th Viscount Irvine (1727-78), who were married on 6 March 1781. Her uncle was Lord George Gordon (1751-93), whose political activities had sparked the anti-Catholic riots of 1780.
Reynolds's principal compositional source for the picture was a red chalk drawing of four cherubs' heads by the Italian seventeenth-century artist, Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), which Reynolds had acquired in 1779 at the studio sale of his master Thomas Hudson (1701-79), and which is now in the British Museum. The first critical notice of the picture appeared in The Times in October 1786, before it was exhibited in public at the Royal Academy. Here The Times observed that the 'grouping of four likenesses of the little cherubic Gordon into one picture, is among the prettiest portrait ideas that have ever been conceived'. Several months later, The World, a newspaper which also kept a close watch on developments in Reynolds's studio, noted that the 'four heads, in one frame, of Lord William Gordon's child, are gone home'. However, a subsequent sitting with Miss Gordon in March 1787 indicates that the painting had in the meantime been returned to Reynolds, not least because in the completed picture there are five heads, rather than four, the additional one presumably being added during the final sitting.
Frances Gordon's mother outlived her daughter by ten years and, on her death in 1841, she presented this picture to the National Gallery. There it was extensively copied, registers of copies kept by the National Gallery from 1846 to 1895 revealing no fewer than 314 full-size copies in oil. The popular appeal of the picture to Victorian taste is also indicated by its reproduction on decorative items, including the cover of an ivory-bound prayer book. Numerous photographic reproductions also exist, with titles such as 'The Cherub Choir'. More recently, an image of the picture was used on a First Day Cover to promote the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's 'Year of the Child'. Perhaps most unusual is the use of the image in badges awarded to student midwives at St. Mary's Hospital, Manchester.
David Mannings and Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds. A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, 2 vols., New Haven and London 2000, vol.1, p.221, vol.2, p.556, fig.1494