Essay: Sir Joshua Reynold’s Portrait of Mark Monckton
By Martin Postle for Tate
The Honourable Mary Monckton (1746-1840) was the youngest child and only surviving daughter of John Monckton, first Viscount Galway (1695-1751), and his second wife Jane. Until her marriage in 1786 to Edmund Boyle, 8th Earl of Corke (1742-98), Mary lived with her widowed mother in Charles Street, Berkeley Square, London. Well read and versed in the arts, she was regarded as among the most engaging of the capital’s ‘blue-stockings’ (society women renowned for their literary prowess and social skills). Her parties were celebrated for their informal atmosphere, regular guests including the author Samuel Johnson (1709-84), the Whig politician Edmund Burke (1729-97), and the great tragic actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831). The novelist Fanny Burney (1752-1840) described Mary Monckton in 1782 as 'between thirty and forty, very short, very fat, but handsome, splendidly and fantastically dressed, rouged not unbecomingly, yet evidently and palpably desirous of gaining notice and admiration. She has an easy levity in her air, manner, voice, and discourse’ (C.R. Leslie and Tom Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols., London, 1865, vol.2, pp.278-9). Reynolds vividly captures Burney’s description in this beguiling full-length portrait.
As with so many of Reynolds’s full-length female portraits of the period, Mary Monckton is depicted in a generalised landscape setting, with dense woodland to the right and, to the left, a stretch of undefined parkland leading in the far distance to mountains. She leans upon a plain stone pedestal, behind which is an elaborately carved urn, an indication of the rank and social status of the sitter, who is not simply located in the open countryside but in the grounds of a landed estate. She wears a flowing gown of white silk, around her waist a fashionable pale blue, embroidered 'Turkish’ scarf edged with gold tassels. At her feet is curled her King Charles spaniel, the presence of a pet dog being the height of fashion in Reynolds’s male and female portraits alike. It is, however, Mary Monckton’s mischievous expression that captures the viewer’s attention, evoking her animated presence.
The picture was probably begun on 13 March 1777, when Reynolds recorded a sitting with 'Miss Monkton’ [sic] in his pocket book at 2 p.m. Further sittings took place in March and December. She may also have sat in 1778, although Reynolds’s pocket book for that year is missing. Mary Monckton was aged twenty-nine and still single at the time Reynolds painted this portrait. At that time it presumably hung in her mother’s house in Charles Street, and must have been a prominent decorative feature at Miss Monckton’s salons. Given the demeanour and pose of the Mary Monckton in Reynolds’s portrait, it is fascinating to learn that at her parties she made a point of receiving her guests seated. Thus the portrait acted both as a substitute for her living presence when she herself was absent and, when she was there, a pictorial counterpart to this diminutive woman’s larger-than-life personality.