Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery
The three Sheridan sisters were known as the "Three Graces". Caroline Sheridan (later Norton) was the middle, not the eldest sister, and all other portraits of her show her as a dark-eyed beauty. The sister on the right most resembles her. Please see the portrait of Caroline painted by the same artist later in life (c.1839), as well as one by Frank Stone (c.1845), attached below.
I suggest the following attribution: L-R Georgiana Sheridan (the youngest), Helen Sheridan (the eldest) and Caroline Sheridan (the middle sister).
This discussion is now closed. This painting has been given the more accurate title 'Portrait of three women (formerly called 'The Honourable Mrs Caroline Norton and Her Sisters')'.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing it for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.
It has always been a mystery as to the actual identity of the sitters. It has been presumed the middle lady is Miss Caroline Norton, as she is the most notable. Who are the other 2 people in the portrait? They cannot be her children as her children were boys and they seem too young to be her sisters unless painted from other portraits or made to look young.
Caroline Norton was notable, but her sister Helen was an accomplished literary figure in her own right and it seems likely that the eldest would be the apex of this pyramid, laying a sheltering arm on each of her younger sisters.
The middle one at the back seems to be painted on a larger scale compared to the other two - obviously made up from three different portraits, and also goes against the laws of perspective!
I think one argument against the eldest being in the centre was that the current title of the work is "The Honourable Mrs Caroline Norton and Her Sisters", if Caroline is the feature of the title would she not also be the feature of the painting and therefore take up the central prominent position?
William Etty's painting appears to be taking some artistic license if in fact it was painted in 1847. The sisters would have been approximately the same age; around 38 to 40 years old according to Sheridan family records. My colleague Paul Sheridan sees however a resemblance between the sister (rhs) and her grandmother (standing) in 'Elizabeth and Mary Linley' by Gainsborough and suggests there is perhaps also a slight resemblance between the sister (centre) and Mary.
The features of the face to the right, and the very dark hair coincides with the face that we see in the two images provided by Kim Parker, above.
The face of the middle woman is more like the face of the elder sister Helen. She is in the position of higher status, which she would have held prior to marriage, regardless of whether this later changed through fame or marriage. I don't think that the argument that the painting currently identifies a young sister is sufficient reason for her to be at the centre of the painting.
I have attached a portrait of Helen Blackwood, the elder sister.
Here is Etty's portrait of Caroline Norton which is on loan to Pollak House, Glasgow.
It is probably the same as the one to which Kim Parker provides a link, dating it c.1839.
This discussion has now been linked to the group 'Yorkshire and the Humber: Artists and Subjects'.
As noted, the Sheridan sisters were often characterized as "The Three Graces". I came across this slide which presumably identifies the sisters, L to R Helen (b. 1807), "the good one" (i.e., Aglaea); Caroline (b. 1808), "the witty one"; (i.e., Euphrosyne); and Georgiana (b. 1809), "the pretty one" (i.e., Thalia). (Reference Helen's assessment of the sisters' characteristics "The Nation", volume 81, p. 343.)
If the portrait is in fact of the Sheridan sisters, I am perplexed at the diminution of Helen's portrait.* Was the artist's composition a bit of commentary by a social insider? With little interest in politics, Helen may have been considered a bored child by her sister, Caroline. (Ref. "The Narratives of Caroline Norton By R. Craig p. 139). Others long remembered her as an "angel of beauty and sweetness" (Ref. "Queens of Beauty and Their Romances" by William Willmott-Dixon p. 452).
Caroline's assertive gaze and dominant posture seem at odds with a "joyful or mirthful" personality. Caroline's firm grip on Georgiana's shoulders may refer to her social and other dependence on her sister.
Note also that if the author of the slideshow is correct about L to R order, Helen's blonde hair is inconsistent with later portraits.
*Pardon my aside, but I was not familiar with diminution as a painterly device. Imagine my surprise when I found a similar treatment of Mrs. Carter in Thomas Gainsborough's "Mr and Mrs Carter" (ca. 1747-48) .
This is an interesting discussion about who is who in this triple portrait, but what concerns me is the authority for calling it a portrait of the Sheridan sisters. Dennis Farr's monograph on Etty (1958) lists it as such. But is there a compelling reason, other than the traditional one, for the identification? The painting appears not to be recorded until it went through the salerooms in April 1912, so that catalogue might give more information. Farr did consider that the appearances of the women did not fit the named sitters, but decided that Etty was using earlier portraits of them to compose his own work, or that the other two women were other members of the Sheridan family.
Etty did paint Caroline Norton as we have seen with the above links. And that was in the later 1840s. He also reputedly used her as the model for his Joan of Arc, a vast triptych, in 1847.
Caroline Norton appears not to have worn her hair in ringlets. She favoured a simpler coiffure, as can be seen in most portraits of her. And she had very dark hair, so the only sister she could possibly be in the portrait is the one on the far right and even with that, she is shown considerably younger than she was at that time. Questions do arise. It might well be that this is a portrait, certainly by Etty, probably showing three sisters, but very possibly not the Sheridan sisters.
Also, what should be corrected on Art UK is the spelling of Helen Sheridan's title, which is Clandeboye.
I suggest that the current title of the work, "The Honourable Mrs Caroline Norton and Her Sisters", is more likely to indicate its descent in the Norton family and their association with her ("our great grandmother and her sisters" etc) than to indicate the location of Caroline amongst the subjects.
Was she socially the first amongst the sisters at the time it was likely painted? If so, she may have been given the central position which would otherwise be unlikely.
'Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava' is the title of a painting by Gilbert Stuart, listed as in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. From a 1964 printed catalogue of 'English and Irish works' of Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828).
The Manchester painting is first recorded in Christie's (London) sale of 22 April 1912 (lot 103, sold to Jackson for 13 guineas). There it was catalogued as 'Portrait of the Hon. Mrs Caroline Norton and her Two Sisters'. Dennis Farr (1958) followed this identification of the sitters, stating that it 'has never been doubted'. The consignor in 1912 was anonymous but I shall ask Christie's whether, after more than a hundred years, his or her name can be disclosed.
This discussion is so far unresolved. In order to move things forward, might we obtain from the collection some photos of the back of the canvas and frame in the hope of some further information.
Thanks to help from Christie's Archive I can report that the vendor in the 1912 sale was C. Fairfax Murray -- presumably Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919), artist, collector and dealer. In other words, the painting was almost certainly not consigned from the family of the subjects in the painting, whoever they might be.
Perhaps it was Fairfax Murray who either established or invented the identities of the three women. There is an interesting, but tenuous, link between him and the Sheridan sisters. Just one year earlier he had given Dulwich Picture Gallery a considerable number of paintings (1911 marked the centenary of the Gallery's foundation). He will undoubtedly therefore have known Gainsborough's double portrait of the Linley sisters (Elizabeth Ann and Mary), one of the outstanding British pictures at Dulwich, bequeathed by William Linley in 1835. Elizabeth Ann Linley married Richard Brinsley Sheridan and was thus the paternal grandmother of the Sheridan sisters -- the possible subjects of Etty's painting..
Fairfax Murray's papers are in the John Rylands Library, Manchester.
Thank you, Richard (and Christie's!). This is interesting about Fairfax Murray who had a finger in so many pies. I think given his connection with the picture that the identification of the sitters is more tenuous than it already was. He was in the business of buying and selling, so to make an identification with famous individuals would be advantageous to him.
I still think if York could send an image of the back of the picture in order to eliminate any other avenues of research, we might be able to wrap this one up. If it has a modern backing, then perhaps they could confirm that.
The work unfortunately does have a modern backboard.
Ok, Manchester, thanks (and sorry for the reference to York above!
I was thinking of Etty's home city). This information does help. The discussion can soon be drawn to a conclusion. The identification, whether from Fairfax Murray or not, is not credible. Without knowing the foundation for it, I don't think it can be sustained.
Dennis Farr was a fine historian of British art and his catalogue raisonne of Etty's works was a big step forward but in this case, the sheer number of works he had to catalogue meant he could not pursue (nor be expected to pursue) every angle in every entry.
The picture is an interesting one but it looks unlikely that it depicts the Sheridan sisters. One option is to give it the title: Portrait of three sisters or three women (formerly called The Hon. Caroline Norton and her sisters).
As has been pointed out, the only sitter here who looks at all like Caroline N. is the one on the right - which may be the hook on which the current identification hangs, rather lopsidely given the central figure - clearly not her- is in 'pole position' for titling puposes. Just to add that David Elliott's biography (2000) of Fairfax-Murray has a useful chronology, by notable years, (pp.239-47) including his major group sales and public gifts, but doesn't help at this level: 1912, when he sold this picture, is not included.
Farr questions the ages of the sitters and speculates that the portrait may depict "other members of the Sheridan or Norton families". There appears to be no provenance linking the painting to either family, and the identification of the sitters seems to have been chiefly based upon a similarity to an earlier portrait of Norton by Etty. To me it seems more likely that this is a portrait of a woman with her two teenage (or even slightly younger) daughters. This would explain the disparity in scale of the foreground figures and the position of the background figure's hands resting upon their shoulders. It may prove difficult to find a conclusive match for potential sitters from Etty's circle of friends and patrons. I thought, perhaps, that it may show the actress Fanny Kemble (who was briefly in London in the mid 1840s) and her daughters, but I'm not sure if their respective ages would convincingly match with that of the three women in the portrait.
The central woman might be the mother of the others if she married very young, but she could also be their elder sister. Either way, we are speculating.
I would support Barbara Bryant's suggested conclusion to this very interesting discussion - we should retitle the picture for the present to 'Portrait of three women (formerly called 'The Honourable Mrs Caroline Norton and Her Sisters')'. Thank you to everyone who has contributed, it really is appreciated so much by us all at Manchester.
Curator, Fine Art, Manchester Art Gallery
Thank you, Hannah. With the agreement of Manchester Art Gallery, I recommend we close this discussion. Deep research in Etty's unpublished letters and papers might well reveal a commission for a portrait of these three women, but for now retitling to the more accurate 'Portrait of three women (formerly called 'The Honourable Mrs Caroline Norton and Her Sisters')' is the best course of action.