Among the most striking features of this portrait is not Mrs Beckford's face, but her opulent attire. She wears an open sacque dress (à la Francaise) of turquoise blue and silver watered silk, with matching silk trimmings on the bodice. The necklace, shoulder mantle and sleeve ruffles are of fine silk lace. Mrs Beckford's dark hair is unpowdered, and decorated with a headdress composed of ribbons and feathers, called a 'pompon'. Her jewellery includes clip-on earings ('snaps'), probably made of paste, and on her wrists two black silk bracelets mounted with miniatures. The one on her right hand appears to be a bust-length portrait of a man in a blue coat, while the left one contains what may be a female figure in red, although the image is not legible. Their identity is unknown, although they may possibly have been her parents or other members of her immediate family.
Reynolds began work on the present portrait in December 1755, when he noted down four appointments with Susannah Beckford in his pocket book. Although the pocket book for 1756 is lost, there may have been further sittings that year because the picture is initialled and dated 1756 by the artist. Susannah Beckford's husband, Francis, whose pendant portrait Reynolds was then painting, also sat to Reynolds in December 1755. (For further details on this portrait see the corresponding short text for Tate N05798).
The present picture of Mrs Beckford, and that of her husband, was probably commissioned from Reynolds as a marriage portrait. Susannah Beckford (d.1803) was by then a very wealthy woman, the sole heir to the fortune amassed by her father, Richard Love of Basing Park, Hampshire. In February 1755 she married Francis Beckford (d. 1768), one of nine legitimate children of Peter Beckford, Governor of Jamaica, who had accumulated vast wealth from sugar and the slave trade. It was Francis Beckford's second marriage, his first wife having died in February 1754. According to the London Magazine for 1755 Susannah's personal wealth at the time of her marriage was £20,000.
The dress in the present portrait would almost certainly have been painted from a dummy or 'lay figure', Mrs. Beckford's own sittings with Reynolds being used by the artist to model the facial features and general pose only. It is also probable, given the precision with which the costume is painted, that Reynolds relied upon the services of a professional 'drapery painter', or possibly his in-house assistant Giuseppe Marchi (d.1808). There is no surviving record of how much the portrait of Mrs Beckford cost, although at that time Reynolds is known to have charged twenty-four guineas for a so-called 'half-length' portrait, such as the present one. Precisely how much of this was passed on to the drapery painter is uncertain, although according to Marchi, out of the forty eight guineas Reynolds then charged for a full-length portrait, his drapery painter, Peter Toms (1728-77), received fifteen, or just less than a third.
In the present portrait Mrs Beckford's left arm is placed upon her hip, an unusual pose for a female sitter, and one which derives from a male portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) of William, Lord Russell, in the double full-length portrait with Lord Digby (The Earl Spencer, Althorp).
David Mannings and Martin Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds. A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, 2 vols., New Haven and London 2000, vol.1, p.82, vol.2, p.185, fig.182, colour plate 18
Aileen Ribeiro, A Visual History of Costume. The Eighteenth Century, London 1983, p.73