This beautifully balanced work is the portrait of two very important children. Their father was a leading politician, Laurence Hyde, 1st Earl of Rochester (1642-1711), who is presumed to have commissioned the work (for Hyde, see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, vol. 29, pp.146-52). Hyde’s late sister Anne had been the wife of James, Duke of York, who in 1685 succeeded to the British throne as James II. Thus the sitters were nieces of the King. By 1705-10, this painting was in the possession of the sitters’ cousin, king James’s daughter, Queen Anne, and on display at Windsor Castle.
Hyde and his wife Henrietta Boyle had one son and four daughters. The eldest daughter, Anne, married the future 2nd Duke of Ormond but died in January 1685. The present portrait shows the Hydes’ second daughter, Henrietta (left) who was born in 1677, and third daughter Mary. Henrietta holds a dove, symbolic of Venus. Behind them is a grand, classical building – apparently imagined – denoting their family’s elite and fashionable status. They are attired in low-fronted ‘nightgowns’ like adult women, and set among large, fleshy flowers. These include the poppies, lower left, which are characteristic of Wissing’s portraits and were probably painted by his collaborator Jan van der Vaart. The roses, to the right, are also symbolic of Venus. Thus the painting functions as an announcement that these little girls are on the marriage market.
A mezzotint made by John Smith after this work has a caption that identifies both the sitters and the artist. The mezzotint (copies of which are in the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum) is very close to this original painting, except that Smith altered the angle of Henrietta’s head. A handwritten inscription on one copy suggests that the mezzotint dates from 1685. Although a dating of about 1683 has also been suggested, 1685 is probably also the date of the painting itself;1685 was a particularly successful year for Hyde, in which, at the accession of James II, he was made Lord Treasurer and a Knight of the Garter. But 1685 was also the year in which the girls’ eldest sister Anne died, which moved their own marriage prospects into sharper focus. If this work was painted in 1685, Henrietta would have been eight years of age, and Mary a little younger.
One of George III’s sons, who became king Ernst August of Hanover in 1837, seems to have taken the present painting with him to Hanover. It remained there until 2005, when it was sold at auction (Sotheby 5-15 October 2005, Works of Art from the Royal House of Hanover (lot 108), Schloss Marienburg, near Hanover).
Born and trained in The Netherlands – like many painters who worked in Britain in the seventeenth century – Willem Wissing was working in London by July 1676, as an assistant to Sir Peter Lely. Following Lely’s death in November 1680, Wissing set up his own busy studio, assisted by the Dutch-born painter Jan van der Vaart (for, presumably, backgrounds, drapery and plants). Wissing died suddenly in September 1687 while working at Burghley House, near Stamford.
Oliver Millar, The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen, London, 1963, p.138.