Robert Fagan

Anna Maria Ferri, the Artist’s First Wife


Not on display

Robert Fagan c.1745–1816
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 737 × 616 mm
frame: 968 × 838 × 114 mm
Purchased 1981


Robert Fagan 1761-1816
Anna Maria Ferri, the Artist's First Wife circa 1790-2

Robert Fagan married the seventeen-year-old Anna Maria Aloisia Rosa Ferri on 12 April 1790. The present portrait, depicting Maria in a striking yellow dress with a blue fur-lined cloak and bonnet, may have been painted around the time of their marriage. If that is so, it is among Fagan’s earliest known portraits.

Robert Fagan’s life was varied, colourful, and ultimately tragic. He was born in London in 1761, the son of a prosperous Irish baker. In March 1781, aged twenty, Fagan enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy Schools. Using his inheritance, he left England for the continent, travelling to Italy and France, before settling in Rome in 1784. Although he worked as a portrait painter, Fagan was also active in art dealing, archaeology and diplomacy. Habitually dissolute and spendthrift, Fagan married Anna Maria Ferri, the daughter of an employee of a Roman cardinal, at a time when he was, according to one fellow artist, ‘very extravagant & embarrassed [in] his circumstances’ (Ingamells, p.346).

After their marriage Fagan and his wife set up home in the Via Babuino, Rome, where their daughter, Esther Maria, or Estina, was born in November 1792. However, the marriage was evidently unhappy and Fagan himself was renowned in Rome for his ill-mannered behaviour. By now Fagan was working as a portraitist in the neo-classical manner, principally for Grand Tourists. He also set up in business as dealer in art and antiquities, illegally exporting large numbers of Old Masters, and building up his own personal collection.

Although Fagan’s business opportunities were initially enhanced by the French occupation of Rome in 1798, which compelled Italian families to sell their art treasures, it also imposed immense strain upon his family life, indirectly causing the ill health of his wife, who died in August 1800. Six weeks later Fagan remarried, again to a young Italian woman, Maria Flanjani, daughter of the Pope’s physician. He included her, with exposed breasts, in an unusual self-portrait of c.1803 (private collection, Ireland). With his second wife Fagan had two further children. In 1809, by which time he was residing in Palermo, he was appointed consul general for Sicily and Malta. Over the next few years increasing financial problems dogged Fagan. In 1815 he returned briefly to England, moving back to Rome the following year. He took his own life on 26 August 1816.

Anna Maria Ferri’s daughter, Estina, who in August 1809 married William Baker, heir to the estate of Bayfordbury, Hertfordshire, inherited the present portrait. The portrait remained in the possession of their descendants until it was sold at auction in 1947.

Further reading
Raleigh Trevelyan, ‘Robert Fagan, an Irish Bohemian in Italy’, Apollo, October 1972, pp.298-303, reproduced as plate 2.
John Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, compiled from the Brinsley Ford Archive, New Haven and London 1997, p.346.

Martin Postle
June 2001

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Display caption

Fagan was an Irishman who worked in Rome, where he married Anna Maria Ferri in 1790. She was seventeen, and was to live only another ten years. This, one of Fagan's earliest recorded works, may have been painted to celebrate the marriage: it presents the young Italian girl as a stylish but rather mysterious siren, having some of the modish allure of Fuseli's fascinating ladies of about the same date - see his drawing 'The Debutante' displayed here.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 29 × 24 1/2 (73.8 × 61.6)
Purchased from Leggatt Bros (Grant-in-Aid) 1981
Prov: Estina Baker (née Fagan), daughter of the artist, at Bayfordbury, nr Hertford; by descent to Lt. William Lewis Clinton-Baker, R.N.; sold Christie's 1 June 1945 (89), bt G.F. Cumberlege; sold by his widow, Sotheby's 18 March 1981 (46, colour), bt Leggatt.
Lit: H. Avray Tipping, ‘Bayfordbury’ in Country Life, 17 and 24 January 1925, pp.92–99 and 124–132, illus. in photograph of the great library p.129; Raleigh Trevelyan, ‘Robert Fagan, an Irish Bohemian in Italy’ in Apollo, LXCVI, October 1972, pp.298–303, fig.2.

Fagan married the seventeen-year-old Anna Maria Ferri in Rome on 12 April 1790. She appears to have been the daughter of an employee of Cardinal Rezzonico, who was her godfather. The marriage was not happy, and she died on 25 August 1800 as a result, it is said, of deprivations suffered by the family during the Napoleonic wars, when the French occupied Rome in 1798 and Fagan had to flee the city. A daughter, Esther Maria, or Estina, was born to them on 15 November 1792.

In 1806 Estina met William Baker (d.1813), the wealthy young heir to the Bayfordbury estates, while he was on his grand tour of Greece and Italy. Despite his parent's opposition the couple were married in Palermo on 2 August 1809 and soon departed for England. Estina appears to have taken several of her father's portraits with her, including this one of her mother.

The portrait, which is unfinished, shows the sitter wearing an attire which can be dated with some precision to 1790–2 (the compiler is grateful to Dr Aileen Ribero for this information) which suggests that this might be a wedding portrait, as well as one of Fagan's earliest known paintings.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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