Willem Wissing - Countess of Carnarvon
Portrait of a Lady possibly Lady Mary Bertie, Countess of Carnarvon (1655-1709)
Willem Wissing (1656-1687)
Oil on canvas
Private Collection, Portugal
This recently restored portrait by Willem Wissing is a fine example of the artist’s work dating to around 1685. In this portrait the Countess of Carnarvon is depicted sat in a shaded undergrowth adorned with a richly painted red curtain. In the distance we spy a country house settled within an arcadian landscape. Resting her head in her hand, sometimes referred to as the penseroso pose, this melancholic expression is found in English portraits stretching back into the Elizabethan period.
Born in Amsterdam in 1656, Wissing trained under the Willem Doudijns (1630–97) and Arnoldus van Ravestyn (1615–90) before coming to England in 1676. He made his mark by becoming a celebrated assistant to Sir Peter Lely (d.1680) from whom he inherited much of his practise from. Wissing’s brush attracted Royal Patronage in a series of commissions from the likes of Charles II, James II, Queen Anne, and the future William III and his Stuart wife Queen Mary. His baroque portraits, which often contain a greater sensitivity than Knellers, are known for their striking colouring with the odd rare flashes of painterly bravura. Although he is known to often used studio assistants in the production of replicas of Royal Portraits, it seems obvious that much of Wissing’s own hand is very evident in the delicately painted flesh and richly voluminous drapery found in this painting. His relatively early death in 1687 curtailed what would have surely been a magnificent career.
Research has shown that the sitter of this portrait is likely to be Lady Mary Bertie (1655-1709), Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Mary was the daughter of Montagu Bertie, Earl of Lindsey, and the second wife of Charles Dormer, 2nd Earl of Carnarvon. Charles and Mary were married shortly after the death of his first wife Lady Elizabeth Capell in 1678. Although the exact date of their marriage doesn’t seem to have survived, it is likely that this portrait was produced around the time of their marriage. The white flowers to the sitter’s right might be identified as jasmine and were often used as symbols of divine love and purity.
Dormer was a serious patron of the leading court portrait painters. His likeness was captured several times by Sir Peter Lely, the first being made during the early 1650s. Dormer turned to Lely again during the restoration for several sizeable commissions, including a group portrait of his family (sold Sotheby’s London, 6 December 2011, lot. 7) and three important paintings of his first wife Elizabeth (one surviving in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Sold Sotheby’s New York, 5 June 2008, lot 80; Sotheby’s London, 10 December 2020, lot. 27). It seems natural then that Dormer would have turned to the next leading court portrait painter, Wissing, to produce a likeness of his second wife.
The sitter in the painting in question certainly bears the greater likeness to Dormer’s second wife. Lady Mary Bertie’s likeness was captured first by John Hayls before she was married (Sold Sotheby’s London, 21 March 2001, lot 35). Another portrait of her, probably a simplified derivation of the Wissing, inscribed with her name and title was sold at Bonhams Oxford, 16 November 2011, lot. 141. Although the several Dormer and Bertie family portraits descended with their respective families into the twentieth century, it seems that this particular example must have survived through a different and unknown line.
A studio repetition of this painting, catalogued as ‘Circle of Wissing’ and incorrectly identified as Elizabeth, was sold at Sotheby’s London, 19 February 1997, lot 215. This particular painting had descended with the Dormer family into the twentieth century.
Provenance: Private collection Portugal
Signed lower right.
We would like to thank Adam Busiakiewicz for his research.