Ladies-in-Waiting: Art, Sex and Politics at the Early Georgian Court

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Weichel, Eric
British Court History , Art History , Queer Art History , Gender Studies
This thesis discusses the cultural contributions – artistic patronage, art theory, art satire - of four Ladies-in-Waiting employed at the early eighteenth-century century British court: Mary, Countess Cowper; Charlotte Clayton, Baroness Sundon; Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk; and Mary Hervey, Baroness Hervey of Ickworth. Through a close reading of archival manuscripts, published correspondences and art historical treatises, I explore the cultural milieu, historical legacy and historiographic reception of these individuals. I argue that their writing reveals fresh insight on the switch from Baroque to Rococo modes of portraiture in Britain, as it does critical attitudes to sex, religion and politics among aristocratic women. Through the use of satire, these courtiers comment on extramarital affairs, rape, homosexuality and divorce among their peer group. They also show an interest in issues of feminist education, literature, political and religious patronage, and contemporary news events, which they reference through allusions to painting, architecture, sculpture, engravings, ceramics, textiles and book illustrations. Many of the artists patronized by the court in this period were foreign-born, peripatetic, and stylistically unusual. Partly due to the transnational nature of these artist’s careers, and partly due to the reluctance of later historians to admit the extent of foreign socio-cultural influence, biased judgements about the quality of these émigré painters’ work continue to predominate in art historical scholarship. While little-studied themselves, these Ladies-in-waiting were at the center of political, social and cultural life in Britain. Their letters therefore have much of value in reclaiming, not only their own contributions to the development of British cultural life, but those of the French or Francophile émigré artists patronized at court. By studying the work of these artists and the lives of their patrons, I examine the intersection between biography and artistic practice at the early eighteenth-century British court.
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