Nathaniel Dance

Portrait of Mary Brummell (1754-1793)

Oil on canvas: 49(h) x 39(w) in /

124.5(h) x 99.1(w) cm

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BM 12



London 1735 – 1811 Winchester


Portrait of Mary Brummell (1754-1793)


Oil on canvas: 49 x 39 in / 125 x 100 cm

Frame size: 58 x 47 ½ in / 148 x 121 cm

In its original carved & gilded fluted frame


Painted circa 1772



The sitter’s son, William Brummell;

his daughter Georgiana, Lady Piggott (1802-1886), Denston Hall, Suffolk;

by descent



Lewis Melville, Beau Brummell: His Life and Letters, London 1924, illus. opposite p.26 (as owned by Mrs Robinson of Dullingham, Cambridgeshire)



Nathaniel Dance was one of the most sophisticated portrait painters of the second half of the eighteenth century, bringing a neoclassical sensibility to the genre derived from more than a decade living in Rome (1754-65). In 1762 he worked in the studio of Pompeo Batoni, imbibing the ease and grace with which Batoni invested his sitters. After returning to London, Dance built up a fashionable portrait practice, painting George III and Queen Charlotte in 1759 (Uppark, NT). He was a founder member of the Royal Academy and developed an equally important career as a history painter, the genre which ranked highest in the artistic hierarchy of the eighteenth century. 


Mary Brummell leans elegantly against a stone wall in a sunset landscape which has echoes of the Roman Campagna. She is embowered by trees and her glance is thoughtful, mysterious, intriguing. Her white silk dress is a fantasy garment, halfway between fashionable clothing and the floating gown of a wood-nymph. White dresses trimmed with gold and accessorized with cloaks and loosely-tied sashes were the height of chic in the portraiture of the 1770s, appearing for example in Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Lady Kent, 1777 (private collection). Dance is a particularly subtle colourist, employing dusky pink, white and a soft blue to offset Mary’s English rose complexion and unpowdered chestnut hair.


Mary Brummell was a celebrated beauty and the mother of George ‘Beau’ Brummell (1778-1840), wit, arbiter of taste and friend of the Prince of Wales. She was the daughter of the Keeper of the Lottery Office and a descendant of Sir Thomas Richardson, Speaker of the House of Commons and Chief Justice in the reign of James I. In 1772, around the time that this painting was made, Mary married William Brummell (d.1794). The son of a servant who kept a boarding house in Bury Street, St James’s, ‘Billy’ Brummell rose by his own abilities to become private secretary to Lord North, who was Prime Minister from 1770 to 1782. The choice of Nathaniel Dance to paint Mary’s portrait may have been influenced by the fact that Dance was painting North’s portrait around the same period (National Portrait Gallery, London).


Billy’s loyalty to his master was rewarded with the lifelong sinecures of Receiver of the Duties on Uninhabited Houses in London and Middlesex, Comptroller of the Hawkers’ and Pedlars’ Office, and Agent and Paymaster to the Out-Pensioners of Chelsea Hospital, which brought in £2,500 a year for no effort on Billy’s part[1]. When Lord North’s ministry fell in 1782, after the disastrous war with the American colonies, Billy Brummell retired and bought a charming small estate, The Grove at Donnington in Berkshire.


The Brummells had three children, Maria, William and George, the latter born in Downing Street. The boys were sent to Eton, where George, a popular lad, ‘distinguished himself by the introduction of a gold buckle in the white stock, by never being flogged and by his ability in toasting cheese’[2], an essential skill in fagging. George went up to Oriel College, Oxford in 1794 but came down after one term, having inherited around £20,000 from his father. He was offered a commission in the 10th Hussars by the Prince of Wales and his ascent as dictator of fashion began.


This portrait of Mary Brummell, who died in 1793, shortly before her husband, passed to her elder son William, who owned an estate at Wivenhoe. It was inherited by his daughter Georgiana, who in 1831 married Sir Thomas Piggott, 2nd Bt. The couple lived at Denston Hall in Suffolk, granted them by Piggott’s sister-in-law, who herself lived at Dullingham in Cambridgeshire, inherited from her Robinson mother. After Sir Thomas Piggott’s death in 1847, Georgiana remarried and moved away, but the Dance portrait of her grandmother descended in the families at Denston and Dullingham.





Denston Hall, Suffolk.




London 1735 – 1811 Winchester



Nathaniel Dance was the eldest son of the architect George Dance Snr (1695-1768), designer of the Mansion House, and the brother of George Dance Jnr (1741-1825), architect of Newgate Gaol. He entered Merchant Taylors’ School in 1744 and then trained under Francis Hayman (?1708-1776) before travelling to Rome in 1754. He became a well-established portrait painter but had ambitions to succeed as a history painter, producing in 1759 The death of Virginia (untraced, but known from a sketch in the Soane Museum, London), the first dated classical history painting by a British artist working in Rome. In 1761 Dance was elected a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists.


In 1762 Dance assisted Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787), whose light palette and sophisticated manner influenced his own portrait style. Both artists painted Edward Augustus, Duke of York, George III’s brother, while he was in Rome in 1764. Dance’s version is in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. The same year he painted a portrait of the Swiss-born artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), with whom he was in love. (Kauffmann spurned both Dance and Joshua Reynolds, who was later equally besotted with her, in favour of marriage with a conman named Brandt).


Dance returned to London in 1765 and rapidly achieved fame as a portrait and history painter. His Timon of Athens, 1767 (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace) was bought by George III and the following year Dance painted George III’s unstable brother-in-law Christian VII of Denmark (Royal Collection). After the King appointed Benjamin West as his history painter in 1771, Dance concentrated on portraits. He was a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768 and showed portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte (Uppark, West Sussex, National Trust) at the first Academy exhibition in 1769. In 1771 he exhibited David Garrick as Richard III (Town Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon). By the mid-1770s Dance had become financially independent and upon his marriage in 1783 to Harriet Dummer, a wealthy widow and daughter of Sir Cecil Bisshopp, Bt., he virtually ceased painting. He resigned from the Academy in 1790 upon his election as MP for East Grinstead and thereafter only exhibited occasional landscapes as a ‘gentleman’. In 1800 he was created a baronet and took the name of Dance-Holland. He died in Winchester in 1811, leaving a fortune of more than £200,000.


[1] Melville, op. cit., p.25.

[2] Ibid., p.29.

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