John Michael Wright 1617–1694
Portrait of Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren Edward and Elizabeth Bagot
Oil and resin on canvas
1275 x 1331 mm
Inscribed ’Mrs. Salisbury & her Grand- | children Sr. Edw[ar]d. Bagot & | Eliz[abet]h. Bagot afterwards | Countess of Uxbridge’ in a later hand, top right
Presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1993
By descent in the Bagot family at Blithfield, Staffordshire,1 until sold by Harry, 7th Baron Bagot, Sotheby’s, 26 July 1967, bought ‘Twining, P. £370’; …; possibly Mr van Baerle of Hamstead Marshall during the 1970s; …; Sotheby’s, 14 July 1993 (37, reproduced in colour), where unsold but subsequently purchased by the Patrons of British Art for presentation to Tate.
2nd Lord Bagot, Memorials of the Bagot Family, Blithfield 1823;2 W.J. Smith, ‘Letters from John Michael Wright’, Burlington Magazine, July 1953, pp.233–6; Sara Stevenson and Duncan Thomson, John Michael Wright, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh 1982, pp.23, 44, 85–6, reproduced fig.22 (as whereabouts unknown); Karen Hearn, ‘Portrait by John Michael Wright’, tate, no.3, Summer 1994, p.m6; Tate Report 1992–94, London 1994, p.18, reproduced in colour; Karen Hearn, ‘Acquisitions of Seventeenth-Century Painting at the Tate Gallery’, Apollo, December 1996, p.21; Karen Hearn, ‘Rewriting History on the Walls’, Country Life, 22 May 1997, p.54, fig.3, reproduced in colour; Mary Bustin, ‘John Michael Wright (1617–1694), Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren’, in S. Hackney, R. Jones and J. Townsend (eds.), Paint and Purpose, London 1999, pp.32–7.
The inscription identifying the sitters in the top right-hand corner was probably added in the eighteenth century. Edward Bagot did not succeed to his baronetcy until 1704, and baby Elizabeth, in the middle, did not become a Countess until 1739. Other pre-nineteenth-century pictures from the Bagot collection bear similar inscriptions. In her lifetime, the sitter’s surname was spelt ‘Salesbury’ (not, as on the inscription, ‘Salisbury’).
The painting may appear – and indeed is – a charming family group. Yet, when it was painted, it also served a larger purpose. It was commissioned as a piece of visual evidence in a bitter dynastic row, which centred on property – the very land, in fact, seen stretching out to the distant mountains, behind left. Indeed, it was made when the battle over these rich Welsh estates was at its most intense.
This picture is the pivotal work out of a group of paintings commissioned in 1675 by a Staffordshire gentleman, Sir Walter Bagot (1644–1704) of Blithfield, near Rugeley, Staffordshire.3 In that year he ordered from the artist John Michael Wright six family portraits and two landscapes.4 As well as the Tate work, the set of portraits consisted of a half-length of Sir Walter himself, in classical attire, with a dog at his side;5 a pendant pair of Sir Walter and his wife, Jane, née Thelwall (c.1650–1695), both seated;6 a near-square image (like the present work) of Sir Walter’s mother, Lady Mary Bagot, with his eldest surviving child, his daughter Mary (Wolverhampton Art Gallery); and a head-and-shoulders image of the long-deceased husband of the Tate sitter, Sir Charles Salesbury (died 1659).7
The landscapes were to be an overdoor and a chimney piece, and their purpose and style must have been decorative; they seem to have disappeared long ago. The importance of the Tate picture within this group is indicated by the grandeur of the signature that Wright used, when (as was often his custom) he signed the work on the back of the canvas. This signature ‘Jo: Mich. Wright Pictor Regius | pinxit. 1676.’ was only found in 1994, when the eighteenth-century lining was removed in conservation at Tate.8
Much is known about the Bagot family’s affairs – and also about the progress of Wright’s work on the paintings – because an extensive group of Salesbury and Bagot family documents have survived in the National Library of Wales. Through them can be traced the protracted negotiations that preceded the marriage of Walter and Jane in 1670 – negotiations in which both the elderly ladies took an active part. The Salesbury side were by no means certain that Walter was a good enough match for the heiress Jane.
The marriage meant the transfer of many profitable Welsh estates to Sir Walter, and unfortunately this resulted in a bitter rift with part of the Salesbury family. Mrs Salesbury’s nephew by marriage, William, embarked on a long, costly and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle with Sir Walter, which was to last for seven years. In the course of this, William’s brother was caught arranging the forgery of a document and had to flee the country. Indeed in May 1676, just as Wright was working on the portraits, the Bagot children themselves were brought into the case, and moves were initiated to appoint an independent guardian for them. Thus this endearing little scene is also a visual statement about a transfer of property.
The Bagot family had been in contact with Wright since at least 1670, when Sir Walter’s father had known Wright well enough to use his studio as a post restante address in London. Wright was a Roman Catholic, as were also many of his clients, although not apparently the Bagots. In 1675, when this set of pictures was commissioned, Wright was at the height of his success. He seems to have seen himself as a genuine rival to Sir Peter Lely, who in reality was consistently more successful, particularly in gaining the patronage of King Charles II and the members of his court.
The letters show that Wright went up to Staffordshire in summer 1675 and remained there until the autumn. He was evidently residing with the family and, while he was presumably making preliminary sketches of them, he also enjoyed the pleasures of country life, including, as he later wrote, ‘stag-hunting and syllabubs’. It is not known what source he used to make his picture of Mrs Salesbury’s deceased husband. Wright then went back to London for the winter and worked on the paintings over the following year, 1676. From the manner in which he built up the composition of the Tate picture, it appears that he employed what might be termed ‘body doubles’ to pose for him there, and then gave these the heads of the Bagot family, based upon his Staffordshire sketches. It was clearly the Tate painting that he meant when he wrote to Sir Walter, with considerable feeling, that he should really give up trying to sketch babies: ‘having almost killed two or three children with colds, though in the heat of the summer, designing them naked, they crying and bawling about me, and the mothers ready to scold me out of my house.’9
The Tate portrait was the last in the group to be finished. On 24 October 1676, Wright wrote that it had been despatched to Blithfield, adding that ‘Madam Salisbury’s peece (being of 3 figures) I thought I would never have an end for I could not hinder my self from making it curious and full of variety as the subject required’. Conservation of this work, by Mary Bustin, has revealed numerous pentimenti and evidence of just such changes and second thoughts as these words indicate.10
For example, in 1675, when Wright visited the family in Staffordshire, baby Elizabeth would have been a few months old and probably still partly in swaddling clothes. By the time he started the painting, her mother Jane was pregnant again, for on 24 September 1676, a baby sister was born. In the painting, as an x-radiograph reveals, Mrs Salesbury originally grasped a swaddled baby, instead of a squirming infant. She held it upright, gathering the bearing cloth behind her fingers so that the little boy could show his sister an anemone-like flower, which he proffered gently between his forefinger and thumb. With another baby in the family, however, the picture presumably had to be updated quickly. A bouncing child was therefore superimposed over the swaddled shape, and Edward’s arm was shifted (several times, as is now apparent to the naked eye). Instead of a flower, he now offers a small doll. The bearing cloth was reinstated beneath the infant Elizabeth, its blue silk and costly border of pearls recalling the rich textiles used at christenings.
The unusual square dimensions of the portrait required Wright to use two pieces of canvas sewn together. In fact, the artist re-used two discarded paintings, increasing the width of one old half-length by ten inches (twenty-five centimetres) by adding a strip of primed cloth to the left edge. Although crudely stitched with tent stitch, not an easy task given the thickness of the dry priming that had to be pierced, the position of the seam was carefully considered, because it had to run between the principal figures. Traces of the previous unfinished paintings may be seen in the x-radiograph: Mrs Salesbury was preceded by a lady in ringlets wearing a feathered headdress. The image is thin and may have been rubbed down before the new portrait was started.11
For the Tate portrait, Wright charged £40 – it was by some way the costliest of the set. He made a separate charge for supplying the frames, the carrying cases and for the cost of sending the finished works to Blithfield. The frames were subcontracted, as part of Wright’s overall service, and the letters show that he did not hesitate to alter their pattern from the one originally agreed with Sir Walter to something ‘broader and richer’. For the one for this picture, probably the one still around it, he raised the charge to £5.10s – again, the most expensive of the set.12 The present frame, of raffle leaf bolection moulding, is deeply carved both in the wood and in the overlying gesso. It was originally water-gilded, which used the same amount of gold leaf but required more labour in burnishing the gold to a high finish than oil gliding. Wright had included the cost of oil-gilded frames in his original estimate.
Wright also attempted to levy a further £3.10s for using particularly expensive pigments in the paintings – ultramarine, made from finely ground lapis lazuli, and red lake – which he had omitted to include in his original estimate. Ultramarine was an expensive commodity. At the sale of the contents of Sir Peter Lely’s studio, the best ultramarine was priced from £3.12s to 16s.8¼d the ounce.13 Smalt, a similar blue, but an unstable pigment, was by contrast 3d the ounce. Wright was sparing in his use of the ultramarine. For the bearing cloth he used only a small quantity as a glaze over a rich undercoat of smalt, which in turn had been strengthened by an underlying opaque grey. The smalt has discoloured to a pale greyish brown hue which now overwhelms the ultramarine glaze. It should match the brilliant blue of the cloth beside the grandmother’s fingers. That particular blue area is unfaded because the artist corrected the position of the fingers using a brush loaded with ultramarine paint instead of smalt. Wright was insistent that ‘the pictures would have been good without them [the best pigments], though not so rich and beautiful the workmanship would have been as well, for many persons will not goe to the price of rich lakes and rich oltramarine bleu’.14
The picture remained at Blithfield until the 1940s, and was only sold out of the family in 1967.15 Because the house itself was remodelled in 1740 and again in the 1840s, there is now no evidence as to where and how Sir Walter intended this carefully ordered set of portraits to be displayed.16
Given the bitter legal case over the Salesbury estates, the peaks seen in the present picture must indicate Wales. Mrs Salesbury herself lived at Pool Park, near Ruthin, from where the Clwyd Hills would have been visible: indeed it has been suggested that one of the mountains here represents the peak of Moel Famau.17 Her attire is that of an affluent widow. Her pointed hat is of a type worn by middle-class women throughout Britain at this date. She has it here over a mourning hood and a widows’ peak cap – a form of headdress that lasted into the eighteenth century.18 She wears a gold wedding band and also a silver set diamond ring, typical of the period. The diamond brooch at her breast is of an earlier date – the 1620s or 1630s – perhaps inherited from her own or her husband’s family.
Although Mrs Salesbury is in contemporary dress, little Edward, like his father in the two other pictures in the set, wears imitation classical attire. This style links the two male members of the family with the heroes of Roman literature and history. Edward grasps a model horse on wheels. It was probably a studio prop that belonged to Wright because an extremely similar horse appears in an earlier portrait by him.19 Edward proffers to his sister a tiny doll representing a swaddled baby, a type of toy that was apparently common over much of Europe.20 The golden object in baby Elizabeth’s left hand could be a pomander, containing ambergris or some other sweet-scented oil. Or it could contain a bezoar, which was a hard substance, generated in the stomachs of wild goats, which was then thought to have numerous medicinal properties. Acorn-shaped, it was often set in a cage of gold, as seen in this painting. Among other properties it was thought to be efficacious in preventing children from getting worms.21 Mrs Salesbury is seated on a Venetian sgabello chair, in a style originally dating from about 1500.22 It is possible that it belonged to Wright who, during his years in Italy, had gained the reputation of an antiquary, and who included similar chairs in other portraits.
The composition echoes the iconography found in images of the Madonna and Christ Child with the infant John the Baptist.23 This is not by chance, for John Michael Wright had previously spent fourteen years in Rome and had been accepted into the artists’ guild there (the only seventeenth-century British artist to be accorded such recognition).24
To the present-day viewer, there is a disjunction here between the elderly features of the ‘Madonna’ figure and the more customary sweet face of a youthful Mary. It is, in fact, highly appropriate that Mrs Salesbury should have been taking a mother’s role here, as the little girl was also her god-daughter, and named Elizabeth after her. God-parenthood at this period involved very strong links between the individuals involved.
Mrs Salesbury’s year of birth is not known, but she was the daughter of John Thelwall of Plas Coch. Having been widowed in 1659, she was to live on until 1693. It is perhaps irrelevant (but fascinating) to note the bills for the catering at her funeral: rhenish, canary and best port wines; a pint of capers; 16 pints of anchovies; 26 pounds of biscuits. In her will she left to Elizabeth, who was obviously her favourite grandchild, £1,000, a pair of silver candlesticks, and a silver basin and cup.25
Elizabeth herself, born in March 1675, did not marry until 1739, dying ten years later at the age of 75. Her husband, Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge, was a close political associate of her brother. Edward himself was to follow in his father’s footsteps to Christ Church, Oxford and then to Middle Temple. Like his father, he too married an heiress, and represented Staffordshire as an Member of Parliament, but he died comparatively young, at the age of 38.