Object in Focus: Lady Dalrymple

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Posted 1st February 2022

Our Assistant Curator, Dr Stacey Clapperton introduces us to this striking portrait, Lady Dalrymple (c.1851–1853, Figure 1) by G F Watts. See the painting on display for yourself in the G F Watts Studio at Limnerslease between 1 - 7 February, before the artwork goes out on national and international loan.

A starkly simple yet striking portrait. A favourite model and muse, Sophia Dalrymple was the youngest of seven Pattle sisters. The sisters, which include the famed photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and Countess Virginia Somers became brilliant society figures whom G F Watts befriended during the late 1840s. The story goes that he came to visit with the family for three days and ended up staying for more than 30 years.

Sophia had an extraordinary life. At Watts Gallery, we were fortunate enough to be visited by the Scottish historian, art historian and photographer William Dalrymple recently (Figure 2), who told us some fantastic stories related to his great, great grandmother. He informed with us how Sophia was born in Chandernagar, which is situated in the Hooghly district in the Indian state of West Bengal. She was then educated in Versailles and spent much of her youth between Versailles and Paris. We then know that she returned to India, and it was there at the age of eighteen that she married a young cadet of the Bengal Civil Service (one of the arms of the East India Company); John Warrender Dalrymple.

Due to her husband’s postings however, she came to live with her sister Sara and her husband Thoby Prinsep, a Director of the East India Company, at their home Little Holland House in Kensington. It was here that Watts, painted this monumental sized canvas of the young woman who was responsible for his affectionate ‘Signor’ nickname.

Sophia can be seen standing on the balcony of Little Holland House. The date of the portrait places this around the time that Sophia had welcomed her first born; a daughter named Virginia in 1850. One could assume that the long, simple gathered dress that Sophia wears in this portrait is because she had recently given birth or was indeed in the early stages of her next pregnancy. However, this type of free-flowing and unfussy dress was characteristic of the Pattle sisters’ style, as evident in the double portrait of Sara and Sophia (currently on display in the Historic Galleries at Watts Gallery, Figure 3) and in the many drawings and photographs that survive today.

This style of dress and its subdued colour would have appealed greatly to Watts. He is known to have studied the Parthenon marbles at the British Museum in great detail during his youth and his surviving sketchbooks are filled with endless studies of the folds and fabric carved in classical sculpture. He urged students to ‘draw constantly from drapery’ because he claimed that it helped to train the eye to be ‘in tune with the law of form and line’. [1] In this portrait, Sophia takes on the character of a Greek sculpture.

Watts wasn’t the only artist who admired Sophia. ‘She was certainly one who a lot of people fell in love with’ William Dalymple told us, ‘[William Makepeace] Thackeray said he would have loved to marry her. [Edward] Burne-Jones does a love album to her, there are rather amorous letters from [Dante Gabriel] Rossetti.’ Sophia and her sisters remained great friends to Watts throughout their lifetimes. They and their children became models for the artist and their likeness can be seen in his drawings, subject paintings, and his experimental portraiture both within the Watts Gallery Trust collection and further afield.

The portrait of Lady Dalrymple has recently undergone extensive conservation treatment, details of which the Collections and Exhibitions team will share with you in this series of blog posts. This work has been carried out to prepare the work as it goes on loan to the forthcoming exhibitions Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan at the Royal Academy (26 February – 22 May 2022), and in The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler at the National Gallery of Art Washington DC (3 July – 10 October 2022).

Please make sure to come and see the portrait for yourself between 1 - 7 February, on display in the G F Watts Studio at Limnerslease for one week only, prior to going out on national and international loan.

Hear William Dalrymple talk more on Sophia Dalrymple's life and adventures in the video below.