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