Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Linley Sheridan and Gainsborough mystery

Thomas Linley's La Duenna opens tomorrow at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio in a production by English Touring Opera. The libretto is by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Linley and Sheridan were the mega-stars of London theatreland in their era, and were related by marriage. Thomas was the father of Elizabeth Linley and Sheridan was her husband. Oddly, the plot of the opera replicates their real life experiences.

In 1980 my father bought a painting at an auction clearing the estate of someone connected to the Hearst family in California. The attribution was Gainsborough Dupont, nephew of Thomas Gainsborough. The painting was brought to the US by the notorious art dealer Joseph Duveen, who'd bought it from a named member of the aristocracy. Provenance possibly safe but these small pieces were never catalogued. In any case, my Dad bought it because it was a good painting.

The girl in the picture was undoubtedly Elizabeth Linley, right bone structure, recognizably a Linley. She's posing slightly flirting, eyes sparkling, a half smile on her lips. What's most interesting, though, is the quality of the painting. The face is extremely well painted, very delicate and expressive. The hair, dress and background are painted in a much looser style, almost like a sketch, fiull of movement. Often you can tell fakes because they're painted in a much more studied, careful style, and come over as cramped. This painter had a sure hand and eye.

Whoever painted the portrait concentrated on capturing personality, rather than a mere likeness. When viewed by candlelight from an angle, it comes alive in the eeriest way, as if whoever painted it knew that that was how the purchaser would use the painting.  Attributions don't mean a lot because this kind of portrait was made for private viewing, and quite probably, the buyer, the painter and the subject knew each other personally.

Gainsborough had known the Linley family from childhood, and painted Elizabeth many times over her lifetime.  It's plausible that the portrait could have been painted by his nephew since they all knew each other. But Gainsborough Dupont was exactly the same age as Elizabeth. If this portrait was made around 1770, both of them were around 17 or 18.  Dupont's later work was formal and stiff, nothing like this.

So who really was the painter? Although it's a fairly straightforward informal piece, it's obviously done by someone who is so sure he can do character that he can dash this off quickly without trying too hard. Since the owner knew the subject, and the subject knew who the portrait was being painted for, little chance of this not having come from life. Undiscovered masterpieces seem to pop up all the time. That's not so surprising since it's only been relatively recently that insurance and security has meant much closer audit.

So for all we know, my father bought a painting by Thomas Gainsborough. It's intriguing because there are portraits of her at other ages but not quite at the end of her teens when she's blossoming into womanhood.  This would have been made at about the time Elizabeth eloped with Sheridan, It was the romantic scandal of the day, two young lovers running off together, but, just as in a play, all turned out well.  I would put up a photo of the painting my father bought, he took lots and wrote a volume of notes. But they and the painting are locked up safely and I can't easily get to them.

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