Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mrs James Unwin (d.1813/14) 

Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88)

Portrait of Mrs James Unwin (d.1813/14), Thomas Gainsborough RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 ¾ x 42 ½ in (128.9 x 108 cm)
By descent in the family of the sitter until sold by Captain Edward Unwin, VC, CB, CMG, RN (1864-1950), of Wootton Lodge, Wootton, Staffordshire, circa 1928-9 Purchased for Can $74,671 from Arthur Tooth & Sons Ltd., London, through W Scott & Sons, Montreal, by J Aird Nesbitt, Montreal; by descent to his grandchild
Fredericton, New Brunswick, The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Gainsborough in Canada, 18th October – 31st December 1991, no.5
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This seductive portrait depicts Frances, wife of James Unwin (1717-1774), Gainsborough’s banker and one of his closest friends. It was begun in Bath circa 1763, shortly after the couple’s marriage, but not completed until 1771, probably just before Gainsborough went to stay with the Unwins in Staffordshire. The story of its progress is recorded in a wry series of letters from Gainsborough to his friend.

Although he worked on it for nearly a decade, Mrs Unwin is one of Gainsborough’s most tender and harmonious portraits. Her beautiful face is depicted with the short, feathery strokes of Gainsborough’s mature Bath style, emphasising the delicate perfection of her features. She wears her unpowdered dark hair swept up in the fashion of the mid-1760s. Mrs Unwin’s dress, with its bravura painting of the billowing white undersleeves, gives her an exotic air, with hints of van Dyck or even Turkish costume. Pearls at her throat and entwined in her hair set off the lustre of her complexion. The black dress – an unusual colour in Gainsborough’s female portraits – is girded by a silk sash glittering with metallic thread. ‘Fancy dress’ is a recurrent theme of eighteenth century portraits. The Turkish motif was explored also by Gainsborough’s rival Sir Joshua Reynolds: his 1777 portrait of Mary Wordsworth, Lady Kent (1751-1817) shows the sitter toying with a similar ‘Turkish’ sash. Mrs Unwin leans against a giltwood rococo console by the side of a green damask curtain. The opulence of her setting is perhaps a reflection of the change in the Unwins’ status: in 1761 James Unwin had inherited a magnificent Jacobean mansion and estate in Staffordshire.

James Unwin was Gainsborough’s man of business from 1749 at least until 1763, but they had known each other since the mid-1740s . Unwin may even have introduced him to his wife Margaret Burr, illegitimate daughter (and only child) of Henry, 3rd Duke of Beaufort (1707-1745). Unwin was in business with John Burgh (d.1740), the 3rd Duke’s Steward, and then with Burgh’s son and successor as Steward, Bertie Burgh. Unwin was probably connected to the Unwin family of Castle Hedingham who were acquaintances of the Gainsboroughs; in the early years of his marriage he lived at Great Baddow near Chelmsford, Essex in a house which Margaret Gainsborough knew ‘extreemly well’ . Gainsborough’s relationship with Unwin went far beyond their professional association. He bared his soul to him, confessing the sexual encounter which led to a dangerous illness in the autumn of 1763. Gainsborough’s letters to Unwin are playful, mercurial, passionate, witty. Margaret Gainsborough is both ‘My Dear Good Wife’, who nursed him devotedly in his illness, and the henpecking housewife ‘Old Marg’.

In 1762 Unwin married Frances Stephenson (d.1813/14), daughter of John Stephenson (d.1761), wine merchant and Alderman of Newcastle, and his wife Elizabeth Bell . Frances trailed an exotic history, as she was the subject of an extraordinary clause in the will of Captain Edward Wheeler, RN, who was killed in the Mediterranean in 1761 during the Seven Years’ War as his ship Isis captured the French Oriflamme . Wheeler was the brother-in-law of Bertie Burgh, but had fallen out with most of his family and in May 1760 left Wootton Lodge and his Staffordshire estate to James Unwin, with the proviso that an annuity of £300 should go to his ‘beloved friend Miss Fanny Stephenson’ and to her son should she have one within a year of his death. Wheeler’s will declares ‘Now as I suppose many curious people may think I have by this Will taken a good deal of pains to Bastardise, (as they may wittily term it) my estate, to all such curious people I beg leave to observe from a very old translation “He is a wise child who knows his own father” and indeed I have ever been of an opinion that the children of love are more naturally and properly the heirs of your inheritance than those of the modern Smithfield or Newmarket matches or the unwished for consequences of dull conjugal duty’ . ‘Tho’ I love her beyond expression’, Wheeler left no property directly to Frances, partly to keep his fortune out of the clutches of her hostile family, and partly because ‘no woman even the most sensible among them should be entrusted with the disposal of money as they are strangers to the fatigue of acquiring it so they are likewise ignorant of its real use’.

In the event, James Unwin inherited both Wootton Lodge and Miss Stephenson; they named their firstborn after Captain Wheeler: James William Edward Wheeler Unwin (1763-1818/19). Gainsborough had begun Mrs Unwin’s portrait by the summer of 1763: in a letter to Unwin of 24th July he apologies for not having finished it: ‘But My Dear Friend how shall I continue with you concerning Mrs. Unwin’s Picture I pray Sir, could not you divert yourself with the original for one week longer? I hope Mrs Unwin is not so round but that you can bring that about’ .

The years drag on as Gainsborough makes increasingly feeble excuses about the non-appearance of the portrait, couched in the terms of teasing affection which show how fond he was of both the Unwins. The qualities in Frances which had spurred passionate outbursts in Captain Wheeler were clearly not lost on Gainsborough, as a letter of 7th November 1765, which has remained with the portrait, attests: ‘We are heartily glad you go on so merrily, you put me in mind of a little Fiddle that Giardini pick’d up here at Bath, which nobody would think well of, because there was nobody who knew how to bring out the tone of, and which (‘though somewhat undersized) in his Hands produced the finest Music in the World: I believe Mrs. Unwin has found out the exact place where to fix your soundpost and to cause your Belly to Vibrate better than any hand you ever fell into in your Life’ .

On 10th July 1764 he writes: ‘The Beauties of Mrs. Unwin’s drapery li(ke) our Virtues have laid conceal’d for some time only to flash out the more suddenly’ . On 21st January 1765 he reports Mrs Gainsborough’s chiding him for his dilatoriness: ‘what you scrubb said She, have not you been as long about a Shaddow as [Unwin] have been in making three Substantial whole length figures’ (Mrs Unwin was pregnant with her third child) . In the November 1765 letter he blames the tyranny of society portraiture: ‘I have the greatest desire to finish [Mrs Unwin’s portrait]; I have no oftener promised myself the Pleasure of sitting down to it but some confounded ugly creature or other have pop’d their Heads in my way and hindred me’. By 10th July 1770 he is promising: ‘I’m so ashamed to mention Mrs. Unwin’s Picture that D—mme I wish I was a Razor-grinder – I’ll begin a new one of Her & you together if you’l come [to Bath]’ .

In summer 1771 Gainsborough made a tour of Staffordshire and Derbyshire, visiting the Unwins and presumably bringing with him the long-awaited portrait. They were living in the splendour of Wootton Lodge, a Jacobean house set in the craggy and dramatic landscape at the tail of the Pennines, which had been owned by the Wheelers since circa 1700. ‘I suppose your Country is very woody – pray have you Rocks and Water-falls? for I am as fond of Landskip as ever’ Gainsborough had written on 25th May 1768 . This proved the only tour which Gainsborough made to the Midlands and perhaps his last meeting with the Unwins (James died in 1774). His imagination was stocked with rocks and waterfalls aplenty, and he was inspired to paint View near King’s Bromley, Staffordshire (1771; William L Elkins Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art) , a scene on the way from Lichfield to Wootton. This work, like the Portrait of Mrs Unwin, is a fitting testament to one of the deepest and most fascinating friendships of Gainsborough’s life.

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