With thanks to Charles Noble, the Curator at Chatsworth House, who confirmed the attribution.
This hitherto unrecorded portrait of Georgiana relates to several works at Chatsworth by John Downman, which are studies for the double portrait of her and Lady Elizabeth Foster which now hangs at Ickworth house. Another virtually identical study to the portrait presented here is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (no. 2314.15). Typical of Downman’s technique and style of the 1780s this sketch has a spontaneity and freshness of approach that highlights both the beauty and realism of the sitter without resorting to unnecessary flattery.
Downman completed this rare sketch whilst at the height of his popularity in London. Within a few years of his return to the capital in 1779 he had attained a reputation as one of the most fashionable portraitists of the day and by 1786 he was reported in the press as “universally admired & sought after by the first people of rank and taste” (Morning Post, May 4th 1786). One of the keys to his success was his recognition of representing his sitters in the fashions of the day, leading to commissions not only from high society and royalty but also from the professional classes.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was perhaps the most celebrated beauty of 18th century London, so much so that artists often used a stylised version of her to represent the ideal of beauty. She was also an active political campaigner at a time when women had little direct political power, canvassing support for the Whig party and for Charles James Fox in particular. During the 1784 election, the time this sketch was undertaken by Downman, she controversially spoke at hustings and her critics accused her of garnering support by offering kisses in exchange for votes, which led her to being less favourably depicted by satirists such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson.
John Downman was born in Wales, the son of an attorney and came to London to study under Benjamin West and at the Royal Academy. From 1771 to 1775, he was in Italy with Joseph Wright of Derby. On his return, he specialised in portrait drawings executed in watercolour combined with black chalk and stump to create a soft velvety effect. He exhibited 333 pictures at the Royal Academy from 1769 until 1819.
Other recorded portrait studies of Georgiana, similar to this, are all in important collections, namely the Brtish Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum, National Trust at Ickworth House and Chatsworth, Derbyshire.