Portrait of the Week – the Ladies Waldegrave

10 July 2013

The Ladies Waldegrave, Reynolds, 1780. Photo: Scottish National Gallery.

This week’s Portrait of the Week is another favourite of mine – who doesn’t love the quiet grace of the three Ladies Waldegrave as painted by Reynolds in 1780. The three girls, here shown working together on a piece of embroidery, were sisters: the Ladies Elizabeth Laura, Charlotte Maria and Anna Horatia Waldegrave, daughters of the 2nd Earl Waldegrave and his wife, Maria Walpole. The three girls were still unmarried at the time of the painting, which was commissioned by their great uncle, Horace Walpole for his house Strawberry Hill and it was no doubt hoped by their family that this clear evidence of their beauty and maidenly behaviour would get some eligible suitors beating a hasty trail to their door once the portrait went on public display at the Royal Academy. It seems that it must have paid off as all three were eventually married within a few years.

The girls’ mother, Maria Walpole, who was born on this day in 1736, is a fascinating character in her own right though – her own background being rather different to the tranquil, well bred life enjoyed by her lovely daughters. She was in fact one of the three illegitimate daughters of Sir Edward Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, and his mistress Dorothy Clement, a gorgeous milliner from County Durham. Sir Edward was completely infatuated with Dorothy and would never marry, instead setting up home with her at Frogmore House near Windsor Castle and raising their children together. Although his family would never consent to his marrying Dorothy due to the difference in their rank, their children were acknowledged as his within the Walpole family and treated kindly, particularly by their uncle, Horace Walpole, who would refer to Maria in particular as ‘beauty itself’.

Maria Walpole, Countess Waldegrave, c1766. Photo: University of Virginia Art Museum.

Maria and her younger sister Charlotte were both presented at court in 1758 and immediately caused a sensation thanks to their extraordinary beauty and personal charm, which rivalled that of the even more famous and celebrated Gunning sisters who were now safely married off. It didn’t take long for both girls to attract noble suitors (their elder sister, Laura, had already married earlier that year to the Reverend Frederick Keppel, who would later become Bishop of Exeter) and the twenty three year old Maria would eventually marry the disgustingly wealthy Earl Waldegrave who was twenty one years her senior and not exactly blessed in the looks department.

Nonetheless the couple were relatively happy with Maria enjoying her new position as Countess Waldegrave and being seen all over town in the company of the equally beautiful Gunning sisters, much to the delight of all the gentlemen who could hardly believe their eyes to see three such beauties all at once.

Maria Walpole, Countess Waldegrave as a widow, Gainsborough, 1763.

However, it all came to an end in April 1763 when the Earl succumbed to smallpox, leaving Maria a very lovely and touchingly youthful widow of twenty six with three small daughters, the youngest still a baby and the eldest just three, to support. The Waldegrave title and estate was entailed and went to Maria’s brother in law, John and she was left to look after herself as best she could on a relatively small income. Her family, of course, swooped in to help, with her uncle Horace installing her in Ragman’s Castle in Twickenham, close to his own house Strawberry Hill, probably so that he could both enjoy her lively company and also keep a close eye on her.

It was always inevitable that the beautiful Countess Waldegrave wouldn’t waste much time before marrying again but the upper crust of society were scandalised when she turned down the Duke of Portland, a most suitable match and instead seemed to be encouraging the advances of the King’s younger brother, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh – a most unprepossessing young man eight years her junior. More astonishing still was the fact that the unlikely couple (as far as the coupling of a beauty and a rather less than attractive prince can be unlikely) appeared to be genuinely madly in love.

Maria Walpole, Duchess of Gloucester, Reynolds, 1774. Photo: Royal Collection.

The couple were married in secret at Maria’s London home on Pall Mall on the 6th of September 1766, without any witnesses and with Maria’s own chaplain doing the deed. The whole matter was very hush hush and although the couple were always seen together and Maria began to live in a very high style indeed, it is remarkable that no one at all seems to have been aware that they were actually married rather than simply lovers.

All this was to change in October 1771 when the Duke’s brother, Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland astounded everyone by announcing that he had married his mistress, a very beautiful and flirtatious widow with gorgeous eyes by the name of Anne Horton. Alarmed by this, George III banished the scandalous Cumberland couple from court then set in motion the Royal Marriages Act 1772 which debarred any descendant of George II from marrying without the express consent of the sovereign and which would cause a whole HEAP of trouble for his own offspring later on.

In a panic, the Duke of Gloucester then realised that the game was up and that his best option now was to come clean about his own secret marriage to Maria which had been kept quiet for just over five years now. The King was understandably furious, mainly because the Duke was his favourite brother, the closest to him in both looks and personality, and he now found himself with no option but to treat him in the same way as he had done Cumberland, by packing both he and Maria off from court and banishing them from his sight in disgrace. Their marriage, however, was upheld and found legal when it could so easily have been dissolved so there was that comfort at least.

Maria Walpole, Duchess of Gloucester with her son Prince William, Batoni, 1776. Photo: Private Collection.

The Gloucester couple don’t seem to have minded their disgrace too much – they were still in love and applied themselves now to a quiet life at their home, St Leonards Lodge (which they renamed Gloucester Lodge) in Windsor, which they very much enlarged and improved to make a suitable residence for their family. As well as Maria’s daughters by Earl Waldegrave, they were to have three children in total, Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester, Princess Caroline (who died as a baby after having being inoculated for smallpox) and Prince William, who was, rather glamorously, born in Rome after the family retrenched there to escape their creditors and would later succeed his father as Duke of Gloucester and, after remaining single for many years on the promise that he would be married to his cousin Princess Charlotte, eventually marry his first cousin and true love Princess Mary at the age of forty.

The Ladies Anna Horatia and Charlotte Maria Waldegrave, Cosway, 1789. Photo: Christies.

Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester, Cosway, c1794. Photo: Royal Collection.

The rest of Maria’s life was devoid of scandal as she devoted herself to her husband and children, ensuring that they made good marriages and rose, as she had done, above their awkward origins with the three Waldegrave girls of the portrait becoming respectively Countess Waldegrave (Lady Elizabeth married her cousin, the 4th Earl Waldegrave), Duchess of Grafton and Lady Anna Seymour (Lady Anna was an ancestress of Diana, Princess of Wales). Princess Sophia, her daughter by the Duke would turn down her cousin, the Duke of Clarence and instead preferred to live out her life as a very happy and well respected spinster.

In time, they would even become reconciled with her brother in law George III, who settled a generous allowance on her children by the Duke of Gloucester. Maria was to die on the 22nd of August 1807 at the age of seventy one, having survived her prince by two years.

Maria Walpole, Duchess of Gloucester, Shelley, c1780. Photo: Royal Collection.

Ps. I’ve always felt that the Reynolds painting of the three Ladies Waldegrave must surely have inspired Georgette Heyer to write her novel The Convenient Marriage, which is set in the 1780s and has as its heroine the Lady Horatia Winwood, youngest of three daughters of an impoverished Earl. In fact, I’ve just noticed that the youngest Waldegrave daughter depicted here was called Lady Anna Horatia in tribute to her great uncle Horace Walpole while Lady Horatia was also named for him plus the elder sisters in both cases were called Elizabeth and Charlotte so maybe I’m right!

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