Portrait of Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond with her late Son Esme and her Daughter Mary c.1661
Until recently this work was thought to be a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Churchill, wife of Sir Winston Churchill of Wootton Glanville in Dorset, with her late son Winston and her daughter Arabella. These children were siblings of John Churchill (1650-1722), the future general and later Duke of Marlborough.
An almost identical group portrait bearing that title, now very much damaged but signed by John Michael Wright and dated 1661, has appeared twice at auction in recent years (Sotheby's, 14 May 1986, lot 160, and again at Christie's, 10 November 1995, lot 70). Its provenance remains unknown.
However, a further - previously unpublished - version of this group portrait, from the collection of the Legges, Earls of Dartmouth, recently appeared on the market (Phillips, London, 10 July 2001, lot 121). Sir Oliver Millar has discovered that this was listed in an inventory of c.1735 (Staffordshire Record Office) as a half-length portrait of Mary Villiers with her son Esme, 2nd Duke of Richmond and her daughter Mary, the future Countess of Arran by Wright. The same work appeared in a later account of that collection, at Sandwell, Staffordshire, published in 1801, when it hung 'Over the chimney' in the 'Gentleman's Blue Dressing-Room' and was described as 'A half-length of the duchess of Richmond, duke Esme, and lady Mary Stuart, afterwards countess of Arran; by Wright' (Rev. Stebbing Shaw, The History and Antiquities of Staffordshire, vol. 2, part 2, London 1801, p.131).
In the Churchill family collection at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire is a portrait showing the two children alone, but otherwise similarly composed to the Tate work. A comparatively modern label on the frame identifies the sitters as Winston and Arabella Churchill. However, it is not known when this work entered the collection, or when the subjects were first so named. It does not appear to be listed in George Scharf's 1862 inventory of the Blenheim collection.
A half-length drawing in chalks and graphite of the little boy alone, also by Wright, is now in the National Gallery of Scotland. In it, the boy is shown holding an urn inscribed, in Latin 'RAPTVS EST NE MALATIA MVTARET INTELLECTVM EIVS', which may be translated as 'he was taken away so that disease should not alter his understanding'. This text clearly suggests that the drawing was made, or completed, posthumously. The same urn appears in the Blenheim double portrait. The chalk drawing is attached to a later mount on the back of which is inscribed in a late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century hand: 'The Duke of Richmond, Son of the ¦ Duke of Buckingham's daughter.' This is the same name as that given in the Sandwell Park inventories for the boy in the triple portrait.
Esme Stuart, 2nd Duke of Richmond, born 2 November 1649, died young of smallpox in Paris, in August 1660. His mother was Mary Villiers, daughter of the notorious 1st Duke of Buckingham, the favourite of both James I and Charles I, who had been murdered in 1628. Born in March 1622, she had married as her second husband, in 1637, James Stuart, 1st Duke of Richmond (1612-55). The couple had two children: Esme and his sister Mary, born July 1651. Little Mary was to marry Richard Butler, 1st Earl of Arran but, like her brother, died young on 4 July 1668 and lies buried in Kilkenny Cathedral.
Esme was an extremely important little boy, and his death was a matter of regret at the highest level. The Venetian ambassador in London wrote on 3 September 1660 that he was ' … of great promise, and the king and Court are much grieved' (Calendar of State Papers Venetian, 1659-61, pp.190-1, cited in G.E.C., The Complete Peerage, London 1945, vol.10, p.834). His importance may account for the unusually large number of surviving images of or including his posthumous portrait. At around 1660, the Churchill family were still comparatively minor gentry.
The elegiac mood of the drawing in Scotland is reinforced in the present portrait by the symbolic items on the ledge - the torch with a dying flame and the phial for capturing tears - the cut narcissus in the little girl's hand, the melancholy cypress trees on the horizon against the evening sky and, to the right, by the metal circlet in the form of a snake with its tail in its jaws, held by the lady and representing eternity. These symbols are all classical in origin and would have been understood clearly by contemporary viewers well schooled in ancient Greek and Latin culture. Their profusion may also reflect the many years the artist himself had spent in Rome. The boy is shown wearing a fantasy form of classical costume. His small figure is tenderly encircled by the arms of his mother and sister.
Wright was so prolific during the 1660s that he must already have been employing studio assistants - as he is recorded as doing during the 1670s. The fact that the Tate version of this composition is not signed, and the comparatively harsh handling of the sitters' features, suggest that assistants may have been much involved in the present work.
L. Stainton and C. White, Drawing in England from Hilliard to Hogarth, exhibition catalogue, British Museum, London 1987, pp.122-3, cat. no. 87
Updated August 2001