Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford: Commentary

Commentary on

Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford

This engraved portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford, reproduces an oil painting by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), son of the engraver and writer John Landseer. In 1815 he began studying under Benjamin Robert Haydon: "Landseer is said to have painted the ass in Haydon's Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem" (Ormond, p. 4). According to Richard Ormond, Landseer's work was first exhibited at the Royal Academy (where he studied from the age of 14) when he was 16, and "his charm quickly won him an entree into the drawing rooms of the great, and throughout his life he was able to move in the highest aristocratic circles."1 He also moved in good literary and artistic company: Keats met Landseer after a lecture by Hazlitt in 1818. Leigh Hunt frequently visited Landseer's father at home. In 1824 he visited Sir Walter Scott, who was to be another Keepsake contributor, including work in the same volume with the portrait of the Duchess of Bedford. In a "MS list of pictures painted up to 1821" (V&A, Eng MS, 86RR, vol. 3, no. 194, cit. Ormond, p. 5), "Landseer could point proudly to the fact that he had already earned more than a thousand pounds" (p. 5). In 1826 he was elected Associate of the Royal Academy. The Duke of Gordon (father of Georgiana, second Duchess of the sixth Duke of Bedford) bought Landseer's Sport in the Highlands in the late 1820's (Ormond, p. 6). Scott called the painted dogs in Landseer's pictures "the most magnificent things I ever saw."2 The Duke of Wellington bought Landseer's Highland Whisky Still (Ormond, p. 6). Landseer's association with the Duchess was also a matter of remark by Scott: "In November 1827 Scott noted in his journal that he had seen Landseer in the Duchess of Bedford's train, when she was on her way back from her shooting place in the Highlands" (p. 6).>

The family connections of the Duchess, the Duke, and their offspring illustrate the Keepsake's aristocratic connections, or rather the Keepsake's cultivation of the imagery of such connections. John, sixth Duke of Bedford (1792-1878), was a Knight of the Order of the Garter and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1806-1807).3 His first wife (also a Georgiana, but not the Georgiana whose portrait is reproduced in the Keepsake) died in 1801. In 1803, he married again, a second Georgiana, the Duchess depicted in the Keepsake, who subsequently bore 10 children. The first Duchess of the sixth Duke was the second daughter of the fourth Viscount Torrington, and her children (by the Duke of Bedford) included Francis, who later became the seventh Duke of Bedford, and George William, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Bath. George served in the Napoleonic wars, was wounded at the battle of Talevera, and subsequently served twice as Aide de Camp to the Duke of Wellington. Later (from 1818 to 1830), George sat as M.P. from Bedford. The third son of the Duke and the first Georgiana was John, later Earl Russell, editor of The Memoirs, Journal and Correspondence of Thomas Moore, a poet whose work appears in the Keepsake volume with this engraved portrait of the Duchess (Russell's stepmother) and with L.E.L.'s poem about the portrait. The second Duchess (portrayed in the engraving in the Keepsake) was the fifth daughter of the fourth Duke of Gordon; she died (at Nice) in 1853. Her son by the duke, Wriothesley (Rev.), Canon of Windsor, was married in 1829, the year borne on the title-page of the Keepsake volume that includes his mother's portrait.

The Duke of Bedford patronized Edwin Landseer repeatedly. According to Ormond, the sixth Duke of Bedford "was Landseer's single most important early patron, a warm admirer of his art, and a great personal friend. His much younger second wife [portrayed in the painting and engraving], Georgiana, a daughter of the Duke of Gordon, was a large and exuberant character, doted on by her husband, but deeply resented by the children of his first marriage" (p. 7), including John Russell, later Earl Russell, the editor of Moore's journals. From February 1823, Landseer was a frequent guest at Woburn Abbey, the Duke's home, and at his other houses (in London and in Devonshire). The Duke "insist[ed] on paying more for a portrait of the duchess painted by Landseer" than Landseer had asked (Ormond, p. 7). Further,

the exact nature of Landseer's relationship with the duchess remains uncertain. They were certainly intimate friends and warmly attached to one another. According to contemporary gossip, Landseer was the duchess's lover and the father of at least one of her children, Lady Rachel Russell. The duke could scarcely have been ignorant of the rumors of their liaison, but he seems to have been a tolerant husband, prepared to overlook his wife's lapses. . . . Haydon, as usual, is a good source of gossip. In 1829 the sight of Landseer 'on a blood horse with a white hat, & all the airs of a Man of Fashion' roused his fury: "but I never gave in to the vices of Fashion, or degraded myself or disgraced my Patrons by becoming the pander to the appetites of their wives." And in a similar vein he wrote later: "I never seduced the Wife of my Patron and accepted Money from the Husband while I was corrupting his Wife & disgracing his family." (Ormond, p. 7)

The portrait reproduced in the Keepsake is one of several portraits of Georgiana painted by Landseer. "Landseer drew and painted Georgiana, the Duchess of Bedford, on many occasions" and "her intimate friendship with Landseer lasted from the 1820's until her death in 1853. . . . A . . . formal portrait of her is at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, and a similar version of that was engraved in 1829 (not in 1823 as stated by Graves, 1876, no. 68)."4 Ormond reports that "another oil sketch of her is at Barons Court, Northern Ireland, together with a more formal portrait of her husband" (pp. 124-25). Ormond's correction of Graves is useful, but not quite correct: the portrait of Georgiana could not have been engraved as late as 1829, because the Keepsake volume in which it appeared, though dated 1829, was for sale in 1828.

Like L.E.L.'s poem, therefore (and with or without the intention of Reynolds, the Keepsake editor), the engraved portrait represents profound ironies that involve manipulative representations. The poem and the portrait alike offer to the book's uninitiated customers an apparent homage to the Duchess, while (for those who move in the circles of the portrayed aristocrat and her portrayer) the treatment amounts to sarcasm. The polite illusion of aristocratic dignity is undercut factually by the open secret of degradation (to use Haydon's term). While the painter was a "pander to the appetite" of the Duchess, he was being paid and overpaid by the Duke, for painting the Duchess, among other things. Whether the Duchess was in fact corpulent or not we do not know, and it does not matter; but it is artistically and socially significant that Landseer's portrait represents her in that way. Further, what L.E.L.'s poem calls the "stately beauty" of the Duchess is not apparent in Landseer's treatment, which shows instead a face (the portrait's face, not the actual Duchess's face) that appears simultaneously peevish and unhappy. The conventional status represented by her title (like the status represented by the genre of portraiture in oil) are simultaneously exploited and mocked by the engraving in the Keepsake. The aristocratic imagery is designed to appeal to a large class of customers who gaze upward in the social hierarchy, while the conventional posing and the false front maintained by that aristocratic set are exhibited for a smaller class of initiates.

The commercial medium (steel engraving) mimics the aristocratic medium (portraiture in oil) exactly as the portrayal of the overweight woman (here we emphasize that we refer to the portrait, not the actual Duchess--Landseer's work, and not life) mocks the false dignity of the depicted Duchess. These contradictions are replicated outwardly in the relationship between the plump figure in the portrait and the poem by L.E.L., which makes a theme of the difference between art's conventional chivalric illusions and their contrary, the disillusioned and actual present. In the conventions of chivalric art, a Duchess is said to represent "sovereign Beauty . . . / For which knights went to battle"; in contrast, in "the Present," "there is nought / About thee for the dreaming minstrel's thought." The portrait represents a contradiction between a dignified charm (for those who do not look closely or know much) and a dull image of plump ire. Then, the portrait's contradictions are reproduced in the poem as a contrast between fictions of the past and the actuality of the present. Then, the contradiction reappears in the relationship between the poem and the picture, as a contrast between the beautiful but unreal imagery (the "sovereign Beauty" of aristocracy) and the disenchanted realities of 1828. Whether L.E.L. or Landseer or Reynolds intended or even understood these contradictions in that way, or whether (as we think more likely) they result from the corporate production of the Keepsake, the presence of these contradictions is among the meanings of the work.


1.Richard Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer (New York: Rizzoli, 1981), p. 1. Return to Essay

2.Journal of Sir Walter Scott (London, 1890), 1: 119. Return to Essay

3. Information about the Duke of Bedford and his relations is drawn from Burke's Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Peerage, Baronetage, and Knightage, ed. Peter Townsend, 105th ed. (London: Burke's Peerage Limited, 1970), 1: 126-27, and from DNB. Return to Essay

4. See Algernon Graves, comp., Catalogue of the Works of the Late Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A. (London, 1876). Return to Essay