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Thomas Rowlandson, 1756–1827, British

The Duchess of Devonshire and the Countess of Bessborough

Additional Title(s):

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Her Sister Harriet, Viscountess Duncannon (Later the Countess of Bessborough) and a Musician

Watercolor with pen and black and gray ink over graphite on laid paper, mounted on, moderately thick, moderately textured, cream, wove paper
Sheet: 19 11/16 x 16 3/4 inches (50 x 42.5 cm) and Mount: 22 7/8 x 20 inches (58.1 x 50.8 cm)

Signed and dated lower left: "Rowlandson - 1790"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
aristocracy | couch | dresses, evening | guitar | man | music | portrait | sheet music | sisters | sitting | women
Associated People:
Cavendish [née Spencer], Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806), political hostess
Ponsonby [née Spencer], Henrietta Frances [Harriet], countess of Bessborough (1761–1821), noblewoman
Accessible by request in the Study Room [Request]
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For Rowlandson, 1784 was an annus mirabilis. That year the portraits he exhibited at the Royal Academy gave way to the comic drawings that dominated the rest of his career. He also emerged as a political caricaturist during the fraught campaign over the Westminster Election. At the center of the campaign were Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), and her sister, Harriet, Lady Duncannon (1761-1821). Together they secured the election of Charles James Fox by persuading dithering voters to support their candidate - to the consternation of George III. "Neither entreaties nor promises were spared. In some instances even personal caresses were said to have been permitted, in order to prevail on the surly or inflexible" (Wraxall, 1836, vol. 1, p. 11). Here Rowlandson returns to portraiture six years after the notorious election to depict the two sisters relaxing together on a sofa with a musical score and a serenading guitarist. The matching white dresses, flowing lines, and gentle incline of heads suggest a harmonious relationship, underscored by the metaphor of musical harmony. Georgiana, on the left, was perhaps the most admired and reviled woman of her age, by turns Whig political hostess and fashion icon, novelist, and gambler. The latter vice she passed on to Harriet, who "however inferior to the duchess in elegance of mind and in personal beauty, equalled her in sisterly love" (Wraxall, 1836, vol. 1, p.8). Rowlandson's drawing reflects the fact that, in 1790, the only consolation the sisters had was in each other's company: that year, Georgiana moved to France to escape recriminations over her role in the Regency Crisis, and Harriet's husband had discovered her liaison with the playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Ironically, the first recorded owner of this drawing was George, 5th Duke of Gordon, son of the Tory hostess Jane, Duchess of Gordon, Georgiana's chief political rival.

Matthew Hargraves

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, cat. no. 65, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British Art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, p. 273, no. 65, pl. 65, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

British Art at Yale, Apollo, v.105, no. 182, April 1977, pp. 282-3, fig. 18, N5220 M552 A7 1977 OVERSIZE (YCBA) Published as April 1977 issue of Apollo; all of the articles may also be found in bound Apollo Volume [N1 A54 105:2 +]

John T. Hayes, Rowlandson : watercolours and drawings, Phaidon, London, 1972, pp.138, 139, no. 75, pl. 75, NJ18 R79 H39 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

The Cunning Eye of Thomas Rowlandson, Apollo, vol.105, no. 182, April 1977, pp. 282-3, fig. 18, N1 A54 05:2 + (YCBA) Also available: N5220 M552 A7 1977 + (YCBA)

Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall, Posthumous memoirs of his own time, Richard Bentley, London, p. 11 (v.1), , DA506 W9 A33 1836 (YCBA Rare) (SML)

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