Helen Smith was the daughter of a wealthy Tyneside businessman and politician. She married the stockbroker and music connoisseur Robert Harrison, of Shiplake Court in Henley-on-Thames. Like many of Sargent’s patrons the Harrisons were part of late Victorian high society. But they had unconventional taste, as Mrs Harrison’s dress shows. When the portrait was shown at the 1886 Royal Academy one commentator exclaimed that she had never seen Mrs Harrison ‘wearing such red wing-like appendages to her costume, which look as though about to expand and convey her to the regions of Mephistopheles’.