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Portraiture as Remembrance in 18th Century Britain

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Paul Mellon Centre

16 Bedford Square

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WC1B 3JA

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Research Lunch by Emily Knight (DPhil Candidate, University of Oxford)

‘The Last Sad Testimony of Affection’: Portraiture as Remembrance in 18th Century Britain

In 1773, six year-old Sibyl Wilson died. Her grief-stricken parents George and Ann commissioned the artist George Romney to complete a portrait of Ann and Sibyl. This touching work shows the mother’s head cast downward but not quite touching the head of her now deceased daughter, her arms softly embracing the child’s delicate form. The young girl looks out to the viewer with a solemn expression, connected to her mother in space but not time.

Using Romney’s portrait as a starting point, this paper will examine the particularities of posthumous portraits of children in light of new ideas about childhood put forward by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. I will analyse the resulting impact that this change had on artists who fulfilled the commissions of grieving parents and argue that the various ways in which artists attempted to capture a deep sense of loss reveals much about familial relationships during this period and provides a deeper understanding of overt expressions of emotion that emerged during the age of sentimentality.

Over the course of the paper, I will demonstrate how artists in the mid-eighteenth century assumed a varied yet interconnected mode of emotional expression in portraiture that was distinct from the symbolic devices used by previous generations, and compelled the viewer to unpick embedded artistic and cultural references.

Speaker Biography

Emily Knight is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford working on posthumous portraiture in the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries in Britain. She has undertaken research as a Visiting Scholar at the Yale Center for British and she has recently been awarded a Robert R. Wark Fellowship at The Huntington. She is also Curatorial Assistant at Historic Royal Palaces working on the current exhibition ‘Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World’ and is the Paul Mellon Centre’s Doctoral Researchers Network Co-Convenor.

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Paul Mellon Centre

16 Bedford Square

London

WC1B 3JA

United Kingdom

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