|William Austin is chiefly known for being an etcher and line engraver mainly of Old Master landscapes. However he is also known to have published caricatures after his own designs as well as exhibiting his own paintings, five at the Royal Academy. The level of competence shown in the handling of painting and composition in this present portrait suggests that he could be the artist ‘Austin’. Given the size it is also possible that this painting might have been finished with a view to engraving the subject for publication, as with his other prints. Such a subject matter would have had a certain popularity and therefore a wide, lucrative, circulation.
The setting in an English landscape where one person is standing and the other sitting is one with precedence and seen in a number of Gainsborough’s portraits: particularly in relationship to this present picture, Richard savage Lloyd with his sister c.1750 (Mellon Collection) and Mr. & Mrs. Andrews c.1755 (National Gallery, London). The composition also intriguingly follows quite closely that of Gerard Donck’s Jan van Hensbeeck and his wife Maria Koek (National Gallery, London). Donck’s canvas is bigger and the gentleman gestures to the broad landscape around him, looking directly at us. Gainsborough’s figures, if not also suggesting ownership of the countryside around them, are equally looking out directly at the viewer. In this portrait, both the Duke and Duchess are engaged in one another, almost oblivious to us as viewers and the landscape around. Fashionably attired in riding clothes the informal nature of the composition is both charming and intimate for the period and a striking contrast to the vast grandeur of Reynolds’s family group portrait or ten years earlier. Austin, as an engraver of old master paintings, could well have been familiar with Donck’s portrait and liked the informality. The Duchess sits similarly and the rendering of the branches and leaves of the trees is distinctly Dutch in feel, as is, perhaps, the fact that they stand not on ceremony, but as a married couple dressed as country gentry rather than nobility, the Duke’s Garter star the only indication of high social rank. For some time the identity of the sitters has been unknown but can now be re-identified as George, 4th Duke of Marlborough (1739-1817) and his wife Lady Caroline (1743-1811), fortunately for the purposes of identification, a couple with well documented iconography.
After inheriting the dukedom in 1758, Marlborough took his seat in the House of Lords in 1760. In 1762 he was made Lord Chamberlain as well as a Privy Counsellor, and after a year succeeded this appointment as Lord Privy Seal, a post he held until 1765. An amateur astronomer, he built a private observatory at his residence, Blenheim Palace, the first Duke to live totally at Blenheim. A man of taste, vigour and money as well as bringing in William Chambers to make important alterations both inside and outside the Palace he also employed `Capability’ Brown to make major changes to the landscape and gardens. His wife, Caroline, was a leading light in society and the only daughter of John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford.