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Catherine (Halhead) Burton

Date: 1789
36 11/16 x 28 1/2 in. (93.2 x 72.4 cm.)
Medium: oil on canvas
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Object Number: 25.17
Label Text:Catherine Halhead was born between 1762 and 1766, the eldest daughter of Nicholas and Catherine Halhead of Durham. Following the death of her father in 1785, she and her younger sister Elizabeth inherited extensive property in Middridge, County Durham. Two and a half years later, on January 1, 1788, she married Francis Burton (1744-1832) of Edworth, Bedfordshire, a man twenty years her senior with a distinguished career in law and politics. The political patronage of the 4th Duke of Marlborough secured Burton a number of public offices, and as a member of parliament he was instrumental in framing bills for promoting the building, repairing, and general support of churches, chapels, and the residences of clergymen. Intelligent and well-read, Catherine Halhead Burton reportedly joined as an "invaluable partner" in her husband's multifarious professional activities. His biographer noted, "No sketch of Mr. Burton's life would be complete that omitted particular mention of his excellent wife. To great energy of character, she united a cool judgment, and an understanding capable of grappling with every subject, however complicated." Shortly after their marriage, Francis Burton's vision began to deteriorate; by 1800 he was entirely blind in one eye, and he eventually lost use of the other eye as well. Catherine Burton served as his amaneunsis, reading and summarizing newspapers and other documents. With her assistance he sustained his legal duties, gaining renown as "The Blind Senator." In verses written in mock-quotation of Burton, a family friend paid tribute to his wife as "A model of tenderness, care and affection,/My comfort and blessing, bestowed as a prize,/Which more than compensates the loss of my eyes." Childless and possessed of ample means, the Burtons were benefactors of many charities. At his alma mater, Westminster School, Burton established a prize of books for town boys. Catherine Burton died on February 24, 1830, and her husband on November 28, 1832. They were buried side by side in the family vault in the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

Romney painted Catherine Halhead Burton a year after her marriage to the distinguished judge and rising politician, Francis Burton, and he carried out the commission with considerable expedition. She had a total of ten appointments at Romney's studio between March and October 1789. The painting was sent home on November 20, 1789, and paid for four days later by the sitter's husband. Romney's efficiency was assisted by his use of a conventional format that he had begun to employ in 1787 and that would figure repeatedly in his subsequent work. Positioned to the right, his sitter turns her head toward the viewer, her right arm resting on her lap and her left on a table. Through dramatic effects of light and shadow, Romney emphasized keynotes of femininity, namely her face, hands, and ruffle-edged bosom. The theatricality of Romney's lighting effects is complemented by the bold red swag of fabric descending at a dynamic angle behind the sitter, which resonates vibrantly against the blue sky.
In contrast to her boldly staged setting, Catherine Burton herself is understated in both dress and demeanor. She wears a chemise gown with a double collar of plain muslin--a French style that became popular in England during the early 1780s. The lack of jewelry and the relaxed coiffure (with soft, floating curls only lightly powdered) reflect the increasing naturalism of English fashion. Romney carried out his straightforward presentation of the figure first, adding the backdrop later and using light and shadow to bridge the disjunction between them. The completion of the portrait so soon after Burton's last sitting suggests that Romney worked through much of the painting and decision-making in his sitter's presence, and it is possible that she or her husband played some role in his decision to transform the picture's mood through the belated addition of the romantic backdrop.
In her lowered right hand Burton holds a small book and on the table beside her is a much larger volume whose size suggests something in every sense "heavier" than a novel. The distinction was important in the late eighteenth century, when women's reading was contested terrain. A preference for works of a religious or philosophical nature reflected positively on a woman's ethical as well as her intellectual qualities. Novels--especially French novels--were widely condemned as morally polluting, although many respectable women and men relished them. Romney's portraits habitually allude to the reading habits of his sitters (both male and female), representing them holding or resting their arms on books, or, more rarely, in the act of reading.
It is tempting to connect the books in this portrait with Catherine Burton's ultimate role as her husband's amaneunsis; in addition to legal texts and newspapers, she is known to have read him devotional works, as he was a great admirer of the Sermons of Dr. Van Mildert, Bishop of Durham. At this early date, however, the imagery most likely reflects the "powerful intellect" of the sitter herself. Although the spotlight is squarely trained on her feminine charms, the formidable tomes in the shadows advertise the intelligence of this young, newlywed heiress.