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Whilst cataloguing the paintings of the National Trust collections I have been particularly drawn to the art of Angelica Kauffman, who was one of the most prominent artists in England in the late eighteenth century as well as, apparently, an accomplished musician in her leisure time. She triumphed choosing the more difficult path as shown in her Self Portrait of the Artist Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting, a wonderfully vibrant large painting of 1791/1794. She was a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts and the last woman to be admitted until 1922. Born in Switzerland, she was a member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome at the age of only 23, and came to London in 1766 to seek her fame and fortune. I like her refined neo-classical style of painting that became popular with many of the aristocratic patrons who were building large mansions at the time, many of these buildings are now in the care of the National Trust.

Some of her earliest paintings were history scenes chosen from classical or medieval times such as Hector Taking Leave of Andromache, Venus Directing Aeneas and Achates to Carthage, Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses, Ulysses Discovering Achilles, Vortigern, King of Britain, Enamoured with Rowena at the Banquet of Hengist, the Saxon General, and Interview of Edgar and Elfrida after Her Marriage to Athelwold, acquired by Theresa and John Parker, later Lord Boringdon. Kauffman’s future second husband Antonio Zucchi decorated Robert Adam’s Saloon and Dining Room at Lord Boringdon’s home at Saltram in Devon. Kauffman was friends with Sir Joshua Reynolds, of whom she had painted an intimate portrait in 1767, the Parker’s old family friend and favourite portrait-painter.

Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses

Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses 1768

Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807)

Hector Taking Leave of Andromache

Hector Taking Leave of Andromache 1768

Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807)

She painted on a small-scale, choosing more unusual mythological subject matter, often using contemporary poetical sources of older stories, and employing a feminine touch, referring particularly to loss or longing. For example the painting of Diomed and Cressida, in Petworth House and the paintings at Stourhead in Wiltshire: Penelope Sacrificing to Minerva for the Safe Return of Her Son, Telemachus, and The Death of Héloïse, (after an engraving by Thomas Burke of Angelica’s original painting which was at Burghley House and now in Moravian Museum, Brno) inscribed with the lines from the poem, Eloisa to Abelard by Alexander Pope, 1717.

Her earliest portraits, after settling in Britain, also have a particular informal outlook like Lady Frances Greville (1744–1825), Lady Harpur, depicted as a Muse rather than just the ordinary English gentlewoman and the depiction of Frances Ann Acland (1735/1736–1800), Lady Hoare, at Stourhead with her right hand resting on a book placed on the plinth of a marble head of Clio, the muse of History, contains references to a lady’s intellectual interests.

After returning to Italy in 1781, Kauffman still had English clients coming to her. Lady Elizabeth Christiana Hervey (1759–1824), Lady Elizabeth Foster, later Duchess of Devonshire in a white muslin chemise dress, not originally intended to be worn out in public, was painted in Naples and finished off in Rome, and shows the mistress of William Cavendish  (1748–1811), 5th Duke of Devonshire whom she finally married three years after the death of his notoriously outspoken first wife, Georgiana Spencer (1757–1806), Duchess of Devonshire, with whom she had lived in a ménage à trois since 1782 and of whom a pendant portrait miniature set in pearls, on a delicate chain hangs from her neck. 

She painted an intimate portrait of Thomas Noel-Hill (1770–1832), 2nd Baron Berwick of Attingham whilst he was on his Grand Tour in Rome in 1793, and whose father had previously commissioned her to decorate The Sultana Room at his home in Shropshire in 1784 with the delicately painted ceiling roundels of mythological scenes, and the wonderfully colourful pair of oil paintings: Euphrosyne Complaining to Venus of the Wound Caused by Cupid’s Dart and Bacchus and Aridane.

Other examples of her work can be seen at Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal Academy of Arts and National Portrait Gallery, London.

Tania Adams, Former Paintings Project Cataloguer, National Trust