The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
Mrs Elizabeth Carnac
  • Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792)
  • Mrs Elizabeth Carnac
  • England
  • c. 1775
  • Painting
  • Oil on canvas
  • Image size: 240.4 x 146.4 cm
    Object size: 266 x 174 x 13.5 cm
  • P35
  • West Room
Commentary
History
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Further Reading
  • Elizabeth Catharine Rivett (1751-80) was the 2nd daughter of Thomas Rivett MP and his wife Anna Maria. Aged 18, she became the second wife of Brigadier-General John Carnac (1716-1800) of the East India Company in 1769. John Carnac had worked in India since the 1740s, becoming secretary to Robert Clive in the late 1750s. He resigned from the Company in 1767 and, using the great fortune he had secured in the form of gifts during his service, acquired an estate near Ringwood in Hampshire. However, in 1776, he returned to Bombay, where he was appointed Second Member of Council, this time accompanied by Elizabeth.

    It is thought that this portrait was painted some time in 1775. It was never collected from Reynolds’s studio, nor paid for, which would suggest that it was commissioned relatively soon before the Carnacs went to India in 1776. In fact, the couple were only given a few weeks’ notice of their departure. As John Carnac had only recently commissioned this portrait of his wife, this would suggest that he perhaps originally intended to return to England – to collect, pay for and display the picture. However, in 1780, Elizabeth died and was buried in Bombay. John Carnac lived another 20 years, although he did not return to England and is also buried in India.

    The sitter’s spectacular hairstyle also points to a date of c. 1775, when ostrich feathers – an accessory that was particularly associated with the famous beauty, Georgina the Duchess of Devonshire – were at the height of fashion. More generally, the picture is one of many full-length portraits painted by Reynolds in the mid-1770s. These paintings typically show beautiful women in elaborate, often classical, costume, walking through the landscape. Solitary walks in this sort of parkland setting were considered to be one of the most refined pleasures open to a person of sensibility at this time. The background is also deliberately reminiscent of the woodland areas of country house gardens, such as at the Ringwood estate, which the sitter’s husband had recently acquired. Reynolds seems to have been determined to create the impression that Elizabeth was moving through the landscape – the outline of the costume has been adjusted to give her a more dynamic and less-static appearance.

    The portrait remained in Reynolds’s possession at his death and appeared in his studio sale in 1796. Later in the 19th century, it belonged to the nephew of the sitter, before being acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1861, who appears to have bought the painting as a pendant to Thomas Gainsborough’s similar-sized portrait of Mary Robinson (see P42). It was also engraved in 1778, and the print itself became a highly-prized and valuable commodity.