Portrait of Mary, Duchess of Lennox and Richmond with her children, Esmé and Mary Stuart oil on canvas 106.5 x 130.5cm (41 15/16 x 51 3/8in).
PROVENANCE: Acquired by the present owner's family by the early 19th century and thence by descent
Until recently this work was thought to be a portrait of Elizabeth Drake, wife of Sir Winston Churchill of Wootton Glanville in Dorset, with her late son, Winston and her daughter, Arabella. These children were siblings of John Churchill (1650-1722), the future General and later Duke of Marlborough. An almost identical group portrait bearing that title, now very much damaged but signed by John Michael Wright and dated 1661, has appeared twice at auction in recent years (Sotheby's, London, 14 May 1986, lot 160, and again at Christie's, London, 10 November 1995, lot 70). Its provenance remains unknown. In the Churchill Collection at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire is a portrait showing the two children alone, but otherwise similarly composed to the Tate work. A comparatively modern label on the frame identifies the sitters as Winston and Arabella Churchill. However, it is not known when this work entered the collection, or when the subjects were first so named. It does not appear to be listed in George Scharf's 1862 inventory of the Blenheim Collection.
However, a further, previously unpublished version of this group portrait, from the collection of the Legges, Earls of Dartmouth was sold at Phillip's, London, 10 July 2001, lot 121. Sir Oliver Millar discovered that this was listed in an inventory of circa 1735 (Staffordshire Record Office) as a half-length portrait of Mary Villiers with her son, Esmé, 2nd Duke of Richmond and her daughter, Mary, the future Countess of Arran, by Wright. The same work appeared in a later account of that collection, at Sandwell, Staffordshire, published in 1801, when it hung 'Over the chimney' in the 'Gentleman's Blue Dressing-Room' and was described as 'A half-length of the Duchess of Richmond, Duke Esmé, and Lady Mary Stuart, afterwards Countess of Arran; by Wright' (Rev. Stebbing Shaw, The History and Antiquities of Staffordshire, vol. 2, part 2 (London, 1801), p.131.
Yet a further version is in Tate Britain (n. T06455) and a half-length drawing in chalks and graphite of the little boy alone, also by Wright, is now in the National Gallery of Scotland. In it, the boy is shown holding an urn inscribed 'RAPTVS EST NE MALATIA MVTARET INTELLECTVM EIVS', which may be translated as 'he was taken away so that disease should not alter his understanding'. This text clearly suggests that the drawing was made, or completed, posthumously. The same urn appears in the Blenheim double portrait. The chalk drawing is attached to a later mount on the back of which is inscribed in a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century hand: 'The Duke of Richmond, Son of the Duke of Buckingham's daughter.' This is the same name as that given in the Sandwell Park inventories for the boy in the triple portrait.
Esmé Stuart, 2nd Duke of Richmond, born 2 November 1649, died young of smallpox in Paris, in August 1660. His mother was Mary Villiers, daughter of the notorious 1st Duke of Buckingham, the favourite of both James I and Charles I, who had been murdered in 1628. Born in March 1622, she had married as her second husband, in 1637, James Stuart, 1st Duke of Richmond (1612-55). The couple had two children: Esmé and his sister Mary, born July 1651. Little Mary was to marry Richard Butler, 1st Earl of Arran but, like her brother, died young on 4 July 1668 and was buried in Kilkenny Cathedral.
Esmé was an extremely important little boy, and his death was a matter of regret at the highest level. The Venetian ambassador in London wrote on 3 September 1660 that he was ' ... of great promise, and the King and Court are much grieved' (Calendar of State Papers Venetian, 1659-61, pp.190-1, cited in G.E.C., The Complete Peerage (London, 1945), vol. 10, p. 834). His importance may account for the unusually large number of surviving images of him, including his posthumous portrait. By contrast, at around 1660 when these portraits were painted, the Churchill's were still comparatively minor gentry.
The present composition displays Wright's interest in allegory which he had absorbed during a period spent in Rome where he was elected to the Accademia di San Luca in 1648. It thus incorporates a number of symbolic items on the ledge: the torch with a dying flame and the phial for capturing tears; the cut narcissus in the little girl's hand; the melancholy cypress trees on the horizon against the evening sky and, to the right, the metal circlet in the form of a snake with its tail in its jaws, held by the lady and representing Eternity. These symbols are all classical in origin and would have been understood clearly by contemporary viewers well-schooled in ancient Greek and Latin culture.
Wright was so prolific during the 1660s that he must already have been employing studio assistants - as he is recorded as doing during the 1670s. The fact that the Tate and Phillip's versions of this composition show comparatively harsh handling of the sitters' features, suggests that assistants may have been much involved in those works.
The present composition has been dated to the early 1660s when Wright had returned to England and was painting for King Charles II and his Court after the return of the Stuarts. Wright, as a Roman Catholic, was well-positioned for Royal patronage until the expulsion of James II in 1688.