This painting of Mary, Countess Howe (1732–1800) is one of Gainsborough’s most striking and iconic female portraits. The countess stands confidently in the landscape, her hand on her hip, gazing directly out of the canvas, as if interrupted in the act of walking.
The painting was commissioned in 1764 together with a full-length companion portrait of her husband Richard, 1st Earl Howe, a successful British Naval officer and admiral. In December 1763, the couple, along with their infant daughter, settled for the winter in the spa town of Bath. It was during this period that the pair commissioned Gainsborough to paint their portraits. Gainsborough had moved to Bath from Ipswich in 1759 and was making a name as a society portraitist.
Mary Howe (1732–1800), was the daughter of Chiverton Hartop of Welby, Nottinghamshire, a wealthy landowner and Governor of Plymouth. In February 1758, she married Richard Howe (1726–1799) the Viscount Howe, later to become Earl Howe. The marriage unified two wealthy families who had owned land around the borders of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire for generations and elevated Mary to the ranks of the British aristocracy.
Gainsborough’s portrait of Countess Howe, at just less than eight feet high, was only the artist’s third full-length portrait of a woman on such a large scale. The stormy sky and wild landscape setting would become a typical feature of Gainsborough’s full-length portraits. As a rule, Gainsborough avoided references to classical antiquity through costume, as was popular with other 18th century British artists like Joshua Reynolds, who sought to create a sense of timelessness.
Gainsborough believed that contemporary dress helped to capture a true likeness of a sitter and here Countess Howe is shown in the most fashionable attire of the 1760s. She wears a gown of pink silk taffeta; a ‘Robe à l'Anglaise’, known for its precise cut, construction and simple trimmings. This gown is complimented with more than a dozen accessorise including a transparent ‘fichu’ edged with bobbin lace and an embroidered apron of silk gauze or cotton muslin. Several tiers of ruffled lace, known as ‘engageantes’, attached to the end of the sleeves, cascade down over the countess’s lower arm, adding an additional bulk and prestige to her appearance. Her outfit is completed with a striking wide-brimmed straw ‘leghorn’ hat, which would have been imported from Livorno in Italy. Infrared and x-ray images of the painting show that Gainsborough made several corrections and revisions to the costume and it is evident that these features were carefully considered.
An appreciation of the pastoral and rural idyll was highly fashionable amongst women in high society throughout the 18th century. Additionally, Countess Howe was a landowner in her own right, having inherited her father’s estates in Welby and Cotesbach. Gainsborough seemingly alludes to this by including a broken down fence in the background of the painting, suggesting that rather than walking in public land, Countess Howe is enjoying a stroll in her own grounds, perhaps inspecting the fence before giving orders for its repair.
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.