Through a woman’s eyes

NPG D5655; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by Jonathan Spilsbury, published by John Spilsbury, after Katharine Read

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) mezzotint by Jonathan Spilsbury, published by John Spilsbury, after a painting by Katharine Read, published September 1764. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
The great political tradition of constitutional liberty that inspired Macaulay is contained in the books surrounding her. She leans on John Milton, the finest republican poet and polemicist in the English language; behind her are the Discourses concerning Government of Algernon Sydney, the first Whig martyr, executed in 1683 for his opposition to Stuart absolutism and all forms of government oppression.

The painter of the original portrait reproduced in this engraving was Katherine Read (1723 – 1778), a Scottish artist specialising in crayon who had a successful practice in London. Her well-connected, wealthy clients were mostly women and children, members of the royal family and aristocracy, prominent intellectuals and writers like Catharine Macaulay, and society beauties.

fitzroy - Copy

Lady Georgiana Fitzroy and George Henry Fitzroy, Earl of Euston, later 4th Duke of Grafton, crayon by Katherine Read, 1770

Read didn’t need to work for a living; she chose to. She was independent and ambitious; she never married. Her early career was dictated by the politics of her time. Her family had strong Jacobite affiliations, for which they suffered, and she left Scotland for France after the defeat of the ’45 Rebellion. She was able to afford to study crayon painting in Paris under Maurice Quentin de la Tour.

Then she moved to Rome, another Jacobite hub on the cultural Grand Tour, studying and making contacts with patrons in Italy, until she settled in Hanoverian London in 1753, earning money from painting the old enemy.

NPG D33327; King George IV; Frederick, Duke of York and Albany by James Watson, after Katharine Read

George, Prince of Wales and his younger brother, Frederick, Duke of York, mezzotint by James Watson, after Katharine Read’s crayon painting, circa 1765-1770. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Read produced many charming portraits of aristocratic children, made cuter by hugging dogs, big or small. There is nothing charming or cute about these two alarmingly overweight toddlers, the future George IV and one of his brothers, suggesting that Read refused to sacrifice truth for sychophancy. Perhaps she never gave up her Jacobite contempt for the Hanoverian dynasty.

In 1771, seeing another opportunity to conquer a new world, or just taken over by Wanderlust again, she accompanied her niece, Helena Beatson, also an artist, to the developing British empire in India, and died at sea, near Madras, at the beginning of her journey home.

Read’s art was tame compared to the great female portrait painters who flourished in France later in the century, due to superior professional conditions of access to the same high training as men at a progressive academy, and of positive discrimination rather than condescension of patrons, but the sketchy facts about her life give an impression of a strong, adventurous, determined woman, a brilliant trimmer and survivor, who adapted to circumstances and contemporary taste.

She knew what she wanted to be, and she did it.

The graceful leaning poses of her sitters, her refined tact in rendering gentle and genteel likenesses, the subtlety of her pastel colours, were fully appreciated in her lifetime, but after her death, sharing the posthumous fate of many talented women artists, rich and poor, the best of her work was so good it was attributed to men, in her case Joshua Reynolds, and the rest of it almost entirely forgotten.

NPG D3400; Polly Kennedy (alias Jones) published by John Bowles, after Katharine ReadPolly Kennedy (Polly Jones) published by John Bowles, mezzotint after a painting by Katherine Read, 1770s. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Related links: Katharine Read / Dundee Women’s Trail
Nicholas Ennos, owner of Read’s portrait of her niece, Helena Beaston and author of Jane Austen – A New Revelation

17 comments on “Through a woman’s eyes

  1. Beautiful works, and her determination is inspiring. I was glad to learn about her – thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an intriguing story. In the portrait of George and Frederick, the dog is wonderful! The loyal and loving dog makes the children more sympathetic to the viewer than they otherwise would be.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. PJR says:

    I am excited and grateful for your comment – worth a 1000 posts. I was longing to find out more about Read and her niece, and you have filled the gaps. How fitting that the portrait you own is of Helena Beatson. I look forward to viewing it on the websites you mention. Thank you for sharing your research, knowledge and intuition. May I “reblog” the main body of your comment, and provide links to your Austen book etc? (I have written posts on Austen, too, and coincidentally am about to start narrating her Juvenilia for an audiobook.) Thank you again for your visit, which justifies this half-cocked website!


  4. This is a very interesting website As well as Catherine Mcauley, Katherine Read also painted an oil portrait of Elizabeth Carter, who was a distinguished classical scholar. The original oil painting of Elizabeth Carter hangs in Dr Johnson’s house in London.

    I discovered Katharine Read when I bought an oil painting of hers earlier this year. It is a portrait of her niece, Helena Beatson, who she taught to draw. Helena Beatson exhibited at the Royal Academy at age 11. This painting can be seen on the website “I am a Child” and also in better definition on the Dundee Womens Trail website under Katharine Read. I have loaned the painting to the public McManus Gallery in Dundee where it is now on show. (Katharine Read came from Dundee).

    Although she did paint in crayons, she was also an extremely accomplished painter in oils. For a full length oil painting she commanded £150 which was the same as Joshua Reynolds and more than Gainsborough. She studied oil painting in Rome under Louis-Gabriel Blanchet, Pompeo Batoni’s main rival.

    During her lifetime she faced a lot of professional jealousy from her male rivals, although literary figures such as Fanny Burney, Tobias Smollett and the bluestockings Elizabeth Carter and Mrs Montague praised her greatly.

    While her pastel portraits are catalogued under her name, it seems that her oil portraits have in many cases been attributed to Reynolds and Gainsborough and also to her compatriot Allan Ramsay. Her oil painting of Maria Gunning in the Maidstone Art Gallery is wrongly attributed to Allan Ramsay. (It is the basis for the mezzotint print that is correctly attributed to her).

    The portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, when she was a young girl, which now hangs in Earl Spencer’s house at Althorp, is at present attributed to Gainsborough. However, it greatly resembles my portrait in style and coloration. Georgiana’s portrait was attributed to Katharine Read by the huge authority on Scottish portraiture, J L Caws, in about 1905 and at roughly the same time was reproduced in a history of women artists also attributed to Katharine Read. However, I have faced very strong opposition from the men I have written to about this. Katharine Read is still damned with the same faint praise as she was in her lifetime, being described by such adjectives and “charming” and “elegant”. It is obviously not ladylike to be a great oil portrait painter. It seems that not very much in the art world has changed. It seems that men have to be better than women at art and literature, even if they are not (Jane Austen is the pinnacle of novel writing).

    Katharine Read probably travelled to India to earn higher fees from her paintings, as did a lot of other artists. In my biography of Jane Austen “Jane Austen – a New Revelation” I talk about Count Carl Adam von Imhoff, who kept a diary of his time as a painter in India. I think Katherine Read was the only woman painter who went to India. Katherine Read’s niece, Helena Beatson, who my portrait is of, travelled with her to India and when she was there married Lord Oakely at the age of 15 and then gave up art. He later became Governor of Madras.

    The portrait of Lady Georgiana Fitzroy and George Henry Fitzroy shown in your article is one of the best of her pastels. As you say, Katharine Read studied pastel painting in Paris under the acknowledged greatest master of this art, Maurice Quentin de la Tour.

    I personally believe Katharine Read to be the greatest portraitist of the 18th century as she is the one who is most successful in conveying the personality of her sitters and in this sense she was the most modern of the 18th century portraitists, perhaps ahead of her time.

    I hope to be able to “out” more oil paintings by Katharine Read, but I know I will have a big struggle on my hands with the art establishment.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. erickeyswriter says:

    Maybe I can find a way to work both aspects in… Hmm… I’ve never done historical fiction before. I may need to tap you for some research leads. Now, I’ll just need to work in some depravity and perversion and we’ll be in business!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. PJR says:

    Much better ending, yes! Or – let’s not forget her early Jacobite affiliations – she wasn’t just a high society portraitist, she was a double agent, secretly plotting to replace the Hanoverian Establishment with the exiled Stuarts. It was a political assassination. Write the screenplay.


  7. erickeyswriter says:

    Oh, in my mind there was foul play. She died defending the ship from some tentacled menace from the sea. It was all covered up as there have always been truths man was not meant to know, yes?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. PJR says:

    Yes, I will have to leave her ending to your imagination – all the sources I’ve found simply state she was recorded as dying “at sea” – it must have been an illness, not a drowning, though if it was a 1930s thriller, we might suspect foul play on board ship….


  9. erickeyswriter says:

    “where she died at sea, near Madras, on yet another journey.”

    What? No details? You’re going to leave her death to my turgid imagination?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. olganm says:

    When I saw the drawings I’m sure I’ve seen her work before, but as you say she deserves more attention. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. vinnieh says:

    I love how detailed and informative your posts are.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. PJR says:

    Thank you, Pete, as ever for your empathic response to subjects. I don’t feel sad for Read: her talent was not neglected while she was alive and she knew how to make it commercially successful. She correctly interpreted clients’ tastes.

    I admire her determination to follow her vocation, her independence and adaptability more than her talent – I don’t admire her as an artist as much as her Restoration predecessor, the great Mary Beale, the first female professional portrait painter.

    The cover-up of British female artists – and historians – is the real regret – shocking to think that a few years ago, the only 18th century woman artist most of us non-scholars were allowed to be aware of was Angelica Kauffmann, maybe because she specialised in decorative work, which didn’t threaten male professional domination of other genres, it was a suitable job for a lady ???

    Liked by 1 person

  13. beetleypete says:

    I was left feeling sad for this neglected talent after reading your kind memoir of her. At least she is now granted some recognition in the blogging world, courtesy of your wonderful appreciation.
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. PJR says:

    Thank you, Carol and Beth, for your comments – it’s astonishing how far Read was pushed into obscurity, and even though her work’s been under my nose all my life, in prints at the National Portrait Gallery, I’d never been aware of her until the other day when I was researching the writer Catharine Macaulay.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Beth says:

    Such a shame to have lost so many of the details of women artists’ lives. Thanks for shining light on this one’s!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Glad to learn about another neglected female artist! Thank you. I do love her work as shown here.–Carol

    Liked by 1 person

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