Dress and Textiles, London: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 18th C 69 Who painted this portrait of Letitia Ann Sage?

Mrs Sage
Topic: Artist

We assume that this portrait dates from 1785, when Letitia Ann Sage (c.1750–1817) joined the balloon ascent by Lunardi that it commemorates. Perhaps she commissioned it?

The painting came to the Science Museum in 1950 as part of the bequest of Winifred Penn Gaskell, an extensive collector of early aeronautica and ballooning ephemera. We know that it also appeared in an Aircraft Exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, in 1917, on loan from the Countess of Drogheda (Kathleen Moore née Burn), catalogue number 347. We have no further provenance.

Science Museum Group, Entry reviewed by Art UK

69 comments

Miles Cato,

For some reason, her rather severe countenance suggests Lemuel Francis Abbott (1760-1802), but this is only an instantaneous response.

Jacinto Regalado,

She looks rather matronly for a woman of 35, and the contemporary depiction by Rigaud shows a younger woman:

https://bit.ly/3jV6DSZ

I expect this may be a later portrait, but a dress expert should be able to date this picture more precisely.

Science Museum Group,

Hi Jacinto and Miles,
Thanks for these quick responses.
I agree on the age query. However, both Letitia Sage herself and other accounts report that she was on the larger side - the balloon couldn't carry the full group of people planned, partly becayse of her weight - so there is clearly some licence taken in the Rigaud image,
All the best, Katy

Jacinto Regalado,

The sitter was an actress of no great distinction or success. She no doubt profited from her published account of her balloon flight, which presumably allowed her to pay for her portrait if she indeed commissioned it.

Jacinto Regalado,

Reportedly, the lady weighed 200 lbs. at the time of the flight, which is why only two people were able to ascend instead of 3 or 4. One wonders that she did not desist when Lunardi himself declined to participate, but it would appear she was after publicity and the potential profits of a certain notoriety (there is some suggestion that her acting career had effectively ended around 1780).

Michael Long,

First reaction suggests Johan Zoffany in which case it would have had to have been painted after he returned from India in 1789 or thereabouts.

Ian Hunt,

John Russell? He was working around this time, had scientific interests (the amazing drawings of the moon through a telescope) and connections -- and favoured a quite high degree of finish, but it is a long time since I saw one close up.

Tim Williams,

I wonder if this is the same portrait sold at auction June 12th 1857 - catalogued as Joshua Reynolds. The auctioneer appears to be Puttick & Simpson. See attached, published in 'Notes & Queries' (1857) p.500.

1 attachment
Jacinto Regalado,

It may be, Tim, but she was hardly in a position to afford Reynolds, nor was she his sort of client. However, there is something of a Reynoldesque air about the picture which may explain such an attribution, not to mention the fact it would make the picture sell more readily and for more money.

Osmund Bullock,

Re provenance, is the Collection sure that Lady Drogheda herself was the owner/loaner of the portrait to the Grosvenor Gallery in 1917? The attached (1) news story says that she was, in modern parlance, the exhibition's curator: she "collected and arranged" the many exhibits, apparently gathering them from "all sorts of people in high and privileged places".

It is also possible that the painting was one of those sold at the London auctioneers Puttick & Simpson in June 1857 - part of a "very extensive collection of papers and pictures relative to balloon ascents". See attached (2). I don't think the catalogue is among those at the NAL or the Paul Mellon Centre, but may well be in this group held by the BL: https://bit.ly/3b9Agfe. The Heinz (NPG) also has excellent runs from many auctioneers; but as far as I know they aren't catalogued, so you have to go and look. The BL opened with caution during the lighter restrictions last summer, and I'm sure will again as soon as legal and sensible; but the Heinz, despite usually having just a handful of readers and plenty of space, did not - this doesn't augur well for public access any time soon, or (as I sometimes fear in my darker moments) ever again.

Anyway, failing those, there are definitely copies at the Temple University Charles Library in Philadelphia (https://bit.ly/3bjpzGS) and the Grolier Club in New York (https://bit.ly/3puDJtY), both of which are currently open with restrictions. My experience of specialist American libraries is very good, and I would guess that a polite request might produce an emailed image or two of relevant pages.

Osmund Bullock,

Sorry, Tim, I should have refreshed the page before posting. That's clearly the catalogue page, though I suppose the full one might mention the vendor's name.

Jacinto, according to Mrs Sage's own account, at least - https://bit.ly/3ptaDuX - the launch problems were caused by more complications than just her weight...but then she would say that, wouldn't she? Nevertheless, since the original plan was for three or four passengers, it must be at least partly true. The most unfortunate result of her presence was the breaking of the barometer, which she admitted - she either (depending on who you asked) fainted and broke it as she fell, or knelt on it while trying to fix the netting round the gondola. As a result the height reached could not be calculated, though the drop in temperature to 3C as they ascended early on a June afternoon suggests it must have been several thousand feet.

Jacinto Regalado,

I suppose one should consider John Francis Rigaud as a possibility.

Osmund Bullock,

I don't think so, Jacinto - Rigaud painted this part-imagined version of the same ascent https://bit.ly/3bh4dKd , and it's hard to reconcile the very different image of Mrs Sage with our one.

I shouldn't set any store by that attribution to Reynolds: as I've mentioned before a propos another portrait once attributed to him that we were/are investigating (https://bit.ly/2NgFWft) , "an attribution to Reynolds in a mid/late-C19th catalogue (or to Gainsborough, Romney and various others) means very little. It was routine amongst auctioneers and dealers to attach a well-known artist's name to paintings they sold...". This is particularly so in this case, as Puttick & Simpson were not a specialist fine art house - they were more noted for books, prints and manuscripts.

Osmund Bullock,

It's unusual to see a standard British 'three-quarters' (30 x 25 in) with the sitter and accoutrements filling quite so much of the canvas; is that a clue to the artist, I wonder - in that respect Russell seems closer than Abbott. Of course much of the filling is done by her hat, which is, I rather think, a type of 'Lunardi bonnet' (or Balloon hat or Chapeau a la Montgolfier) - confections of varying designs, but all with "large, puffed crowns and wide brims to match". See https://bit.ly/2NCpI08 and https://bit.ly/2LZbANS.

Tim Williams,

Yes, quite. We can see how Reynolds treats a similar hat in his portrait of Charlotte Grote - more fluid and 'sketchier' brushwork compared to the work under discussion.

However, I think whether Mrs Sage could afford a big name or not is almost irrelevant - this was an event comparable to the moon landing. Every notable person of the period was at the launch - Samuel Johnson was there, and was quite irked by the amount of publicity it was getting - writing as much to Joshua Reynolds. The Right Hon. William Windham who attends the ascent has dinner with Reynolds immediately afterwards. The demand was as great for an image of Mrs Sage in 1785 as it was in 1969 for images of Armstrong, Aldrin etc, and could have been financed by a number of people, including George Biggin who seems to have backed the whole enterprise.

A number unreliable sources cite a portrait by Reynolds of Lunardi, which may well be this one - auctioned at least twice as a Zoffany, and 'discovered' in Mexico City:

https://sorandomhistoricalsnapshots.com/2016/03/13/three-dead-white-men-whom-you-should-know/

Given her celebrity and the high quality of the portrait under discussion, I'm surprised at the lack of contemporary references to this work.

Tim Williams,

This article from the Scotsman in 1936 seems to suggest that Countess Drogheda's portrait was a different one than the one under discussion. She may have had more than one, or as Osmund pointed out, was responsible for arranging the loan of the work from a different owner.

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Jacinto Regalado,

Osmund, I was not implying this picture was actually painted by Reynolds, but that a loose attribution to him was not outlandish. As for Rigaud, the "publicity" picture with the three figures was obviously affected by its purpose, but theoretically he could have painted something more realistic later. My point was that he was connected to the sitter, just as Samuel Shelley is known to have been.

Ian Hunt,

The Yale Center 'Portrait of a Lady' by John Russell, also 25' x 30, is earlier but is perhaps comparable in its careful and also varied treatment of fabrics. The picture under discussion is a good one and the treatment of the net trim to the hat and the eyes is clever. Nothing conclusive, but I think we are talking about a good artist here and someone will be able to work it out. Osmund, grateful for your hat research. I had always wondered what to call this type of hat, seen clearly in Blake's engraving for Mary Wollstonecrafts Original Stories (1791). Who covers this period for the NPG, Lucy Peltz?

1 attachment
Ian Hunt,

Forgot to say: the Yale portrait I attached is from 1768.

Martin Hopkinson,

Should we also be considering continental portraitists?

Kieran Owens,

Could the highlighted area in the attached be carrying a faint signature?

1 attachment
Jacinto Regalado,

The artist was obviously well trained and must be a known figure from the period. It does make sense that Biggin would have paid for the portrait to be made, and perhaps the price was lowered because painting a celebrity (of sorts) would bring the artist much attention (which someone like Reynolds didn't need, but others would want).

Kieran Owens,

As reported in The Globe, of Friday 11th April 1913, as one amongst several other aeronautically-themed lots, a portrait of Mrs. Sage sold for 180gs at Christie's. Perhaps those with good contacts there could find out if the sale catalogue is still available in their archive. It might reveal annotations that could link it to this discussion's one and could include a lead to the donor, Winifred Penn-Gaskell, who was a noted collector of aeronautica. She would have been 39 in 1913 and, although she is reported to have started her collecting habit in 1927, she could have acquired this painting from whoever bought the one at Christie's in 1913......if it is the same work.

Kieran Owens,

George Biggin might also have paid for the portrait due to the fact that Mrs. Sage was, as reported in his obituary in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, of Monday 7th November 1803, his "chere amie". Biggin was a trustee of the Opera House and of Drury Lane Theatre, so could well have commenced his romance with Mrs. Sage through one of those theatrical connections.

Tim Williams,

Coincidentally, Holland also owned the E.W. Cocks that was discussed in another thread on here sometime ago.

Jacinto Regalado,

Is it possible that John Holland was related to Nathaniel Dance-Holland?

Tim Williams,

The common denominator seems to be Robert Holland - John Holland's ancestor who was involved in the aeronautical expedition from London to Weilburg.

Robert Holland had commissioned Cocks in the 1830s and those paintings remained in the family until 1913. I'm not sure how old he is in the 1830s the time of his balloon exploits, but I doubt he had been born when our painting was made, so he may have bought it from the sale in 1857 (if that's also the same portrait).

Kieran Owens,

Alas, it is not very legible. The collections's own site allows for a closer look, but I suspect that the area might need further high tech investigation if any signature is to be revealed.

Alexandra Sheldon,

Letitia Ann Sage doesn't feature in Gill Perry's book 'The First Actresses' written alongside the 2011 National Portrait Gallery exhibition of the same name. However could a theatrical connection between sitter and artist be worth considering? If George Biggin, a trustee of the Opera House and the Drury Lane Theatre, did commission the portrait could he have known Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg who worked at Drury Lane as Garrick's costume and set designer? Far better known as a landscape painter de Loutherbourg's self-portrait at the NPG nonetheless seems superficially similar to the Letitia Ann Sage portrait in its high finish and in its treatment of skin and materials. I've attached it below with the Science Museum portrait for comparison.
I've looked at the online Royal Academy Exhibition catalogue for 1785 and 1786 and can't find any mention of Mrs Sage. Unlike portraits of 'ladies' and 'gentlmen' actresses were often named which possibly means the painting was never exhibited, although that's perhaps surprising given the spectacular nature of the ballooning event. However in the 'Exhibition Room of Sculpture and Drawing', no. 520 is recorded as 'The assension (sic) of Mr Lunardi's balloon from the Artillery Ground' by Barrow H.

Martin Hopkinson,

is that Sage seen from behind in the foreground of Ibbetson's Lunardi's second balloom ascending ... of 1785[Science Museum]?

Martin Hopkinson,

For some reason the name of the French portraitist of Swiss background Jacques Henri Sablet [1749-1803] keeps coming into my mind. There is a fine portrait by him of a cricketer, Mr Hope of Amsterdam, in the MCC Museum
He was a friend of Danloux and Flaxman
a 1929 monograph on him and his elder brother Francois by Daisy Agassiz is in the National Art Library and the British Library has a copy of the catalogue of their sale held on 1 March 1822
There was a large exhibition of their work at the Musee in Nantes in 1985
There is also a book with documents on them of 1888 by the Marquis Anatol Granges de Surgeres
I have seen none of these publications - but we should be looking for an artist of their stature

Tim Williams,

I think the key is the 1857 auction catalogue. I've located a copy in the USA and asked for some images.

Since the lots include a hand bill for the event, portraits of Lunardi, Sage, and Biggin, the vendor of the collection or their ancestor was more than likely associated with the ascent, and might be named on the title page.

Kieran Owens,

As per the Christie's 1913 auction catalogue, the Hollands of Stanmore Hall had direct interests in ballooning and aeronautics.

https://www.stanmoretouristboard.org.uk/the-hollonds-of-stanmore-hall.html

Robert Holland died at 97, Rue de Lille, in Paris, on the 26th December 1877, aged 69 and his wife Ellen (née Teed) died at Stanmore Hall on the 29th November 1884 (and not 1844 as in the link above). On his death, Robert left "a personal estate being sworn under £350,000." (See the attached, from the Shipley Times and Express, of Saturday 23rd February 1878).

Robert's nephew was John Robert Holland, the subject of the Christie's 1913 auction, who most likely inherited this portrait of Mrs. Sage from his uncle. A perusal of Robert's will, if it is available, might confirm this. Given the wealth of the Holland family, it is likely that the portrait could have come from the brush of a Reynolds or some equally important painter.

Tim Williams,

I noted this Kieran (see earlier posts) and I don't believe Robert Hollond could have had anything to do with the commissioning of the portrait since he was born in 1808. My hunch being that after becoming obsessed with aviation around 20 or so years of age, that he purchased the portrait from the Puttick & Simpson auction of 1857.* A biography of Mrs Sage I read somewhere, speculated she may have been related to William Hoare of Bath - there was no evidence presented other than her maiden name being Hoare.

I misspelt Hollond multiple times, and now I've infected everyone else!

*The theory resting it being the same portrait and not a different portrait of Mrs Sage.

Kieran Owens,

Tim, I did not mean to imply that Robert Hollond had anything to do with the commissioning of the portrait. I was suggesting that his wealth would have allowed him purchase very high-quality works. A mention of him in the Illustrated London News, of Saturday 26th July 1851, when he was M.P. for Hastings, noted that "he has a remarkably fine collection of paintings". He was obviously a man of discerning taste and possibly would not have had much by way of works by anyone but the best artistic names.

Given that he was involved in ballooning as early as 1830 (see attached), when he was just 22, and still attending Corpus Christi College, he could have purchased the work at anytime between then and 1857, assuming, as you note, that it is the same portrait as the 1857 auction item.

Osmund Bullock,

Tim, as I wrote above (18/02/2021 01:43), there are at least two copies of the 1857 catalogue in the U.S. I don't know if it's the Grolier Club you've approached or the Charles Library at Temple University (or another); but if you don't get any joy I have a very helpful contact at the Grolier who might be able to do something.

Martin Hopkinson,

for Sablet' s treatment of white drapery c. 1784-5 see The National Gallery of Scotland's La diseuse de bonne aventure

Jacinto Regalado,

Martin, I am not familiar with Sablet, but was he ever active in England?

Martin Hopkinson,

his links and that of his brother with the uk will be found in the publications cited above
It is the drapery which made me think of a continental artist

Tim Williams,

Sorry Osmund, guilty as charged of skimming over your final paragraph!

I contacted Temple, but it might be prudent if you also contact the Grolier (who I concur are enormously helpful and efficient) as the catalogue may have annotations.

Like Richard, I'm of the opinion that this is a London based painter (not necessarily native) who studied/worked with Reynolds. The date of 1785 (or thereabouts) seems consistent with her attire. Burney is a fine suggstion given his father's links with the Pantheon where the balloon/Lunardi/Sage made numerous appearances, but I'm worried we're falling into the trap of throwing names into a hat.

Jacinto Regalado,

Sablet's Wikipedia entry suggests he was never in England, but mainly Paris and Rome.

Jacinto Regalado,

As for Lemuel Francis Abbott, his sitters were practically all men.

Science Museum Group,

My thanks to everyone contributing to this really useful discussion. Unfortunately we can't access the painting in person at the moment, but will certainly look more closely at the possible signature when we can. Many thanks to Osmund and Tim for contacting relevant libraries for the sale catalogue.
All the best, Katy

Stuart Fisher,

This has to be Sir Joshua Reynolds.It’s very much his style of painting and the big dark hat is reminiscent of previous works. Also the peeky pale face is often seen in Reynolds portraits because of the use of none fast red pigments.

Jacinto Regalado,

One would have to consult the Reynolds catalogue raisonné by Mannings to address any attribution to Reynolds.

Peter Dew,

I am curious why they wouldn't have known how heavy she was before planning the balloon trip ?

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

I have really enjoyed reading this discussion .... so so interesting and funny finally....All I can add, vis-vis the fashions shown here, is that they could very well date from 1785. The hat is very fashionable..see my images...The nearest likeness to this hat is in Tilly Kettle's portrait of Anne Howard Vyse, at the Auckland Art Gallery..which they date to 1780 but which seems to me to be more like 1785. See comparison to fashion Plate from Cabinet des Modes 15 May 1786 pl. 1 pl 99 GALLICA BNF

Osmund Bullock,

Re Martin's suggestion of Jacques-Henri Sablet, and his assertion that "Wikedia should not be trusted", it is certainly true that no-one should accept information read there without checking it (though it's *much* more reliable than it used to be).

However, it can be a good first port of call, and often provides very useful links to further, more dependable sources: in this case to his biography (with extensive bibliography) on SIKART, the online Lexicon of art in Switzerland maintained by the Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIK-ISEA). See https://bit.ly/30wxJqs. There is no sign there that he ever worked in England, and I rather think his acquaintance with Flaxman was in Rome in the late 1780s & early 90s.

Martin Hopkinson,

A John Russell pastel of 1790 of SirJoseph Banks' sister is to be sold in the late Countess Mountbatten's sale Sotheby's 24 March 2021 lot 152

Martin Hopkinson,

Russell exhibited Dr Jeffreys crossing the English Channel in a balloon - Royal Academy 1786 no 147 - but that was in crayons

James Spiridion,

Has anyone considered George Romney? He painted famous actress Mary Robinson and so in theory was not ‘above’ a portrait of Letitia; there are certain similarities in his known works, for example the delicate colouring of the cheeks, rather enigmatic facial expression and working of fabrics in his portrait of Mrs Robert Trotter - would be interested to hear thoughts on this.

Martin Hopkinson,

Alex Kidson has reecently published a comprehensive catalogue of all Romney's paintings I could contact him , but I do not believe it is by him.
One thing- I do not think that we have certain proof that this was painted in Britain

Science Museum Group,

Dear all, thanks for everyone's on-going efforts to attribute this portrait. I have actually already been in touch with Alex Kidson who does not think Romney is right here. All the best, Katy

Jacinto Regalado,

Can someone with access to the Mannings catalogue of Reynolds check to see if this picture is mentioned in it?

I have just checked Mannings and Postle. Letitia Ann Sage does not have an entry in the main body of the portrait catalogue and does not appear in the general index.

There are two distinctive features to this portrait (which is executed on a standard British 'three-quarters' size canvas, 30 x 25 in). First is the way the sitter and her costume, including the hat, almost fill the canvas, leaving very little background area. Second is the palette which, judging from the image we have, is almost monochrome apart from the face and neck.

Marcie Doran,

I agree with Stuart and wanted to draw your attention to this 1789 painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds at The Metropolitan Museum of Art that shows a woman in a similar pose and similar large hat. I think the treatment of the black lace of the cape that is draped over her chair is finer than in the mystery portrait but similar.
“Mrs. Lewis Thomas Watson (Mary Elizabeth Milles, 1767–1818)”
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437450

Richard, I believe you may have missed the reference to the balloon flight in the portrait “Fanny Burney” by Edward Francisco Burney at the NPG that you linked to. The Extended Catalogue Entry states:
“The magnificent hat with wide brim and puffed up crown was known as a Lunardi after a popular hero of the day, Vincenzo Lunardi, who made a spectacular balloon voyage from London to Ware in September 1784.”

The signature sent by Marion shows the word Francis between the first and last name, and also ends with a “y”, so could be Edward Francisco Burney. Here is the link again.
https://d3d00swyhr67nd.cloudfront.net/_source/lw-scmu-1950-0302-0004-detail-1.jpg

Here is the link to the Burney painting again.
https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitExtended/mw00161/Fanny-Burney?

If not Reynolds or Burney, I would like to suggest the London artist Robert Davy (d. 1793). It is possible that he contacted her after preparing a group portrait in about 1783-1787 that is also at the Science Museum (it features a watch and chronometer maker).
“John Arnold and family”
https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co65440/portrait-oil-painting-of-john-arnold-and-family-1783-1787-oil-painting-portrait

The lady has a similar expression and the treatment of the lace is very similar, in my opinion.

The pencil signature supplied by Marion could say Robert Davy. It definitely ends in a “y”.

Here is infomation about Robert Davy.
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography,_1885-1900/Davy,_Robert

Perhaps the Science Museum could compare the two paintings in their collection and at least rule him out.

Science Museum Group,

Thanks Marcie for this suggestion. We will certainly do a comparison of the two paintings when we can,
All the best, Katy

Martin Hopkinson,

for the hat compare John Raphael Smith's Pickford House Museum , Derby's 'The Widow's Tale' - and it is worth comparing too Smith's handling of women's costume - see also his 'The Moralist' in the same collection

Brenda Lambourne,

If this is one of the group of three balloon-related portraits all described as being by Reynolds in the 1857 catalogue, is it likely that they were all by the same person (all being attributed to Reynolds suggests a similar style) and is it known what became of the portraits of Vincenzo Lunardi and George Biggin?

Martin Hopkinson,

John Raphael Smith is much better known for his pastels. His style can studied in Neil Jeffares invaluable online Dicionary of Pastelliists . Neil should be contacted for his opinion

Science Museum Group,

Hi Martin,
I have already contacted Neil, but unfortunately he wasn't able to offer any further suggestions or conclusions.
All the best, Katy

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