Lady Brisco was born Caroline Alicia Fleming in around 1757. In 1776, the year this portrait was painted, she married John Brisco (1739–1805). At this time, Gainsborough was one of the most fashionable portrait painters in London. As no companion portrait of Lady Brisco’s husband was painted by Gainsborough, it’s possible this portrait was commissioned by her parents to celebrate the engagement.
Thomas Gainsborough commonly portrayed his sitters in up-to-date, fashionable attire, which he felt assisted in achieving a likeness. However, in this portrait, Lady Brisco wears a shimmering silver gown with gold trim, which references classical draperies while retaining a contemporary late 18th-century silhouette. In this way, the painting is Gainsborough’s response to the timeless ‘Grand Manner’ style of portraiture encouraged by Sir Joshua Reynolds. However, Lady Brisco’s elaborate hairstyle - piled high, powdered with milled wheat starch and ornamented with an ostrich feather - was quite literally at the ‘height’ of fashion in the 1760s.
Lady Brisco’s figure appears somewhat elongated, likely because Gainsborough intended to exhibit the portrait at the Royal Academy in 1777. The slight distortion of the sitter’s proportions was a pragmatic response to crowded displays at The Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibitions, in which full-length portraits were hung high on the walls and were therefore viewed from below. When seen from this angle, Lady Brisco’s figure would appear foreshortened without the artist’s subtle adjustment to the proportions.
Lady Brisco's wealth was derived largely from the proceeds of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. She inherited several estates across St Christopher Island – present day St Kitts – which was then part of the British Leeward Islands colony. By her father’s will, she inherited Shadwell Park, Westhope, Grange and Salt Pond estates. Named tenant-for-life, she was entitled to the entirety of the income from these plantations. Her husband John owned a 1,008 acre estate named Priddies Salt Pond in the south of the island, the profits of which Lady Brisco also received upon his death in 1804.
Overlooking London’s Hampstead Heath since the early 17th century, Kenwood House was transformed in the 18th century into a grand neoclassical villa. Now restored to its Georgian splendour, Kenwood is home to a world-famous art collection.