Lady Caroline Spencer, later Viscountess Clifden, and her sister, Lady Elizabeth SpencerRelated People:
Dimensions: 57 1/4 x 73 1/8 in. (145.4 x 185.7 cm.)
Medium: oil on canvas
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Object Number: 11.44
Label Text: Lady Caroline Spencer was born on October 27, 1763, the eldest of eight children of George Spencer (1738/9-1817), 4th Duke of Marlborough and his wife, Caroline Russell (1742/3-1811), only daughter of the 4th Duke of Bedford. Her sister, Lady Elizabeth Spencer, was born on December 20, 1764. Dominated by their cold and exacting mother, whom Queen Charlotte considered "the proudest woman in England," they had difficulty overcoming the notoriously insular and repressed atmosphere of their home life. While still in her teens, Caroline developed a reputation for jilting would-be husbands at the altar. In August 1782, just prior to their wedding, she broke off an engagement with her cousin Viscount Trentham in favor of his friend Lord Strathaven. He, too, was abruptly dismissed in January 1785. She was subsequently rumored to be engaged to her cousin Lord William Russell, a participant in private theatricals at Blenheim. Finally, on March 10, 1792 she married Henry Welbore Agar (1761-1836), 2nd Viscount Clifden of Gowran, who two years earlier had proposed to her younger sister Elizabeth. Lady Caroline's brother Lord Henry Spencer predicted a successful marriage with Lord Clifden ("a very solid and worthy man") as husband and wife were "both sedate and philosophical." Less charitable observers noted that Viscountess Clifden had inherited her parents' shyness and hypochondria. Horace Walpole called her "the silent woman", and Mrs. John Calvert observed in 1806 that although she was still rather pretty, she was at age forty-three "shy, and seems so frightened in company, that she wants manner and ease; also, she is so afraid of catching cold, and so careful of herself, that from keeping herself quite in cotton she is very delicate." Viscountess Clifden bore several children, of whom she was "passionately fond." She died "very suddenly and unexpectedly" at Blenheim on November 23, 1813 and was buried there six days later. Lady Elizabeth Spencer's romantic life was less turbulent than her sister's. On February 5, 1790 she married the Hon. John Spencer (1767-1831)--"a good Actor, a good Musician, and a good Composer"--who was the son of her father's younger brother, Lord Charles Spencer. The couple had reportedly carried on a surreptitious courtship while performing together in fourteen private theatricals at Blenheim between October 1787 and December 1789. Sir Gilbert Elliot was struck by their shared passion for music, noting on April 28, 1792, "They have...set up an organ in their parish church in the country, where he plays, and she has taught the children and girls to sing. They sing psalms together in London as other people sing Italian duets." He described Lady Elizabeth as "a gentle, good sort of girl, tolerably well-looking but not to be called handsome." For reasons that remain obscure, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough turned against the newlyweds within months of their marriage, and the rift persisted as late as 1797, when Jacob Bryant sent the Duke of Marlborough a thinly veiled plea for reconciliation on the occasion of Elizabeth's giving birth to the first of three children. She died on December 15, 1812, following a final interview with her goddaughter, Charlotte Maria Nares, daughter of her younger sister Lady Charlotte. This portrait showcases the attractions and accomplishments of Ladies Caroline and Elizabeth Spencer, the two eldest daughters of one of the premier families of England. Begun when the sitters were aged twenty-one and twenty-two respectively, the commission coincided with a flurry of marriage proposals and may commemorate their passage into adult womanhood. Employing a convention familiar in double portraits of sisters, Romney contrasts Lady Caroline's facility for drawing with her younger sister Elizabeth's musical abilities. Genteel women and men were expected to practice both of these elegant arts, and the duke and duchess provided instruction for their daughters and sons alike. According to a newspaper report of 1787, the elder Spencer sisters were particularly proficient artists who had successfully imitated works by Raphael, Giovanni Battista Cipriani, Thomas Gainsborough, and Joshua Reynolds. Examples of their work, together with those of other amateur and professional female artists, were on public display at Blenheim at least by the early 1790s. In eighteenth-century England, copywork constituted the first step for all aspiring artists. Students began by reproducing two-dimensional objects such as engravings, moved on to three-dimensional sculpture, and finally worked from life. The newspaper report cited above offered the Spencer sisters no small compliment in stating that they had advanced beyond copywork to original composition: "Their ladyships are now at that point of professional skill, that they design with freedom, and compose with taste; some of their tinted drawings are finished very highly, and with great taste." Romney's belated decision to extend the left side of this canvas stemmed from his desire to pay a more elaborate compliment to the artistic skill and beauty of the Spencer sisters. The extension provided just enough space for a neo-classical statuette on the table in front of Lady Caroline. As the painting now reads, she has seated herself before the statuette in preparation for making a copy, but has suddenly turned away from her static copywork toward a living model: her sister. The flattery of the portrait is thus twofold. Not only does Romney dramatize Caroline's advanced skill as an artist, he also celebrates Elizabeth's beauty (transfigured by pleasure in music) as a greater attraction than the icon of femininity that her sister rejects in her favor. At the same time, by casting a spotlight on the pivoting head of the neo-classical statuette, Romney calls attention to its resemblance to Lady Caroline's head--an implicit compliment to her classical features. Gazing in the direction of the statuette, Lady Elizabeth seems to make music under the inspiration of art, while her sister Caroline creates art under the spell of music. The thematic subtexts of the Spencer portrait are expressed by the alternative title by which it became known, Beauty and the Arts, traceable to the inscription printed on a mezzotint version published by H.T. Greenhead. The harp played by Lady Elizabeth was a highly fashionable accessory when this portrait was commenced, for the instrument's vogue in England dated only from the 1770s. Elizabeth and at least one of her sisters played the harp, and in May 1787 their mother held a Ladies Concert at her house in Pall Mall at which Mademoiselle Denis "played on the harp with so much dexterity and sweetness, as gave great satisfaction to the lovers of that instrument." The harp by no means carried exclusively feminine connotations; it had a long association with male practitioners in Wales and Ireland, and many men took it up in England as well. But whereas English portraitists often painted female amateurs performing on the harp (among other instruments), they rarely adopted this conceit for non-professional male players. As represented by Romney, Lady Elizabeth's playing indicates a continental influence. In contradistinction to Welsh and Irish techniques, she rests the harp on her right shoulder, using her right hand for the treble strings, and plucking with the tips of her fingers, rather than her nails. The double portrait of the Spencer sisters languished for six years in Romney's studio alongside many other unfinished works, including portraits of the sitters' parents. The delay resulted from the lethal combination of the Marlboroughs' notoriously desultory habits and Romney's own inability to cope with the burgeoning portrait business that increasingly "shackled" him. Nine sittings took place in May and June of 1786 (true to family form, five more were scheduled but cancelled). Interest evidently lagged thereafter; five sittings took place in May and June 1787 and one each June in 1788, 1789, and 1791. As with many other portraits by Romney, the slow germination occasioned radical revisions in the canvas, some of which have already been noted above. Others were undertaken in order to modernize the now out-of-date clothing and hairstyles. X-ray reveals that the coiffures of both sitters were trimmed down from their original wide contours and "puff ball" shape. Satin bandeaus were also added in accordance with the style of the time. Caroline wears a transparent apron over an open gown with an elaborate, edged fichu and traditional sleeves coming just to the elbow. Her younger sister wears a slightly less formal, closed gown with a simple muslin fichu and more stylish sleeves that finish at the wrist. Despite notorious cruelty toward her children, the Duchess of Marlborough was evidently the driving force behind numerous family portraits, many of which share the overtly theatrical, staged quality of the present work. By the time it was completed and sent off to Blenheim (September 20, 1791), the sitters were just shy of their twenty-eighth and twenty-seventh birthdays, were either married or on the brink, and one was no longer on speaking terms with her parents. Nonetheless, this striking advertisement of their beauty and accomplishment retained value as an official family image. It was hung up immediately in the public Blue Drawing Room at Blenheim, where it remained until the Duke of Marlborough's death in 1817.