I was planning to follow up on some thoughts generated by a recent interesting talk at the Fitzwilliam Museum about portraits of men with their secretaries/assistants/friends, but I got diverted quite early on to a rather different topic. The Museum currently has on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum a portrait by Van Dyck of Thomas Wentworth (1593–1641), earl of Strafford, and his secretary, Sir Philip Mainwaring (1589–1661). The former was famously beheaded before the outbreak of the Civil War (offered by Charles I as a sacrifice to Parliament); the latter, mostly by keeping his head down, survived another twenty years. (He inevitably lost his estate, and was imprisoned during 1650-1, but did not fare as badly as many royalists during the Protectorate.)
On the opposite wall of Gallery 3 is another double portrait, this time by Sir Joshua Reynolds, of Charles Watson-Wentworth, second Marquess of Rockingham (1730–82), briefly prime minister of Great Britain, who was descended from Strafford through the latter’s daughter, his great-grandmother. Rockingham’s secretary, a shadowy, half-delineated head and shoulders in this unfinished painting, was the young Edmund Burke, who later went on to higher things …
Rockingham was eminently clubbable,as they say: fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, member of White’s, the Jockey Club, and the Society of Dilettanti. He applied himself to improving his estates (to the approval of Arthur Young), and he commissioned Stubbs to paint his famous racehorse, Whistlejacket – horseracing and gambling being his chief interests apart from the enormous money pit now known as Wentworth Woodhouse.
However, he never took delivery of the double portrait. I was looking up its provenance on the Museum online catalogue, and saw that it was donated by Charles Fairfax Murray, a great benefactor, in 1908; he had bought it at the sale of the effects of Lord Leighton (the first painter elevated to the peerage, though sadly he died in 1896 only 25 days after the New Year’s Honours list in which he had been ennobled). Leighton had obtained it from the sale of Sir Francis Grant, P.R.A. in 1879, and so on, back to the sale of Mary Palmer, marchioness of Thomond in 1821. Who she?
It turns out that she was the favourite niece, and heir, of the great Sir Joshua, and had married, as his second wife, Murrough O’Bryen (his own spelling: there are others), Marquess of Thomond and descendant of the legendary Irish hero Brian Boru. How did the niece of Sir Joshua Reynolds, of relatively humble Devon stock, marry into the aristocracy? As so often, everything is connected to everything else.
Reynolds’s father was the descendant of a long line of scholar-clergymen, fellows of colleges who slipped into benefices when they married and were presumably classed with the gentry. The children (among whom Joshua was seventh of eleven) were well educated, their father and grandfather both running schools, and the well known Anglican priest Zacariah Mudge (admired by Dr Johnson and by Burke) was a close friend of the family. (One of Mudge’s claims to fame was that in 1759 he took part in the ‘blessing’ of the Eddystone lighthouse with his old friend John Smeaton.)
Mary Reynolds, the oldest girl (1716-94), was the author of a well-known book, A Devonshire Dialogue, written in the Devon dialect, and was crucial to her younger brother’s progress, paying half of his indenture fee to the painter Thomas Hudson in 1740, and supporting him financially during his travels in Italy. She could do this because she had married well, to John Palmer (1708-70), a solicitor of Great Torrington, Devon, who was prosperous enough to take out a coat-of-arms and build himself a splendid house where Joshua frequently brought friends, including Dr Johnson, who on one occasion allegedly ate thirteen pancakes.
Mary had five children: Joseph (1749-1829), Mary (1750-1820), John (1752-1827), Theophila (1757-1848) and Elizabeth (1758-84). Both Mary and ‘Offy’ spent a lot of time in London, and met their uncle’s wide circle of friends. (Fanny Burney said pleasant things about them both.) He painted both sisters, and Theophila is claimed to have been the model for ‘The Strawberry Girl’, his most famous ‘fancy’ picture, which never left his own collection.
But he also, apparently, taught Mary to paint: she produced her own version of ‘The Strawberry Girl’, and a delightful self-portrait miniature (we arrive at the Object at last!) now in the Fitzwilliam Museum.
It is painted in watercolour on ivory, and mounted in a simple gold oval: on the reverse is the note: ‘Painted by Miss Palmer, Sir Joshua Reynolds neice afterwards Marchioness of Thomond’.
This, and Reynolds’ paintings of her, show a beauty – though it is interesting that she looks much younger in the 1790-ish portrait by Lawrence (a great flatterer) than in the pre-1785 painting by her uncle, where the hat and powdered hair have an aging effect.
Mary Palmer married the marquess of Thomond in 1792, when he was merely the earl of Inchiquin. She was 42, he was 66, and it was his second marriage. His first wife (also Mary) was the third countess of Orkney (in her own right), and his second cousin: she was reputed to be deaf and dumb, the marriage ceremony being carried out by signs. She died in 1790, and was succeeded as countess of Orkney by her daughter Mary, whom Reynolds had also painted.
Reynolds died in February 1792, leaving his niece Mary Palmer as a very wealthy heiress, as well as keeper of the flame. Is it too cynical to suggest that her marriage to the impecunious widower, ex-Grenadier Guard, ex-M.P., ‘six-bottle man’, gambler and improving farmer, who at one point was borrowing money from his (alleged) illegitimate son, Thomas Carter (1767-1800), a popular singer (who trained in Naples and was a protégé of the Hamiltons), was of mutual benefit? He gave her status (even more so when he was created Marquess of Thomond in 1800 by a grateful George III for supporting the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland), and she paid his debts.
They lived in Taplow, Buckinghamshire (the estate was hereditary in the Orkney family), of which Thomond was created baron so that he could have a seat in the British Parliament, as well as in the O’Brien ancestral seat of Rostellan in County Cork. The Marquess died in 1808, falling off his horse in Grosvenor Square and being run over by a cart, and since he had no male heir, the marquisate passed to his nephew, a great tree-planter who had no children, and then to his brother, who in spite of three marriages had no heirs either. (There was a curse on the family which accounts for this.) The marquisate and barony both became extinct in 1855.
The marchioness lived on until 1820, in Baylis House, Stoke Poges – now a hotel ideally located for visits to Legoland, apparently. At the sale of her pictures by Christie’s in May 1821, J.M.W. Turner bought three paintings, including this one, now in Tate Britain, which may be the marchioness herself.
I haven’t been able to find out where Mary is buried – perhaps in Stoke Poges, alongside the rude forefathers of the village? Or at the family seat on the west coast of Ireland, in the ancient kingdom of Thomond?