Thomas Lawrence, Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton: “Pinkie”, 1794. The Huntington Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California.
As my next two talks are entitled Red and White it seemed like a good idea to write about something related to both, and hence, the colour pink. Not only that, but today’s painting, by Thomas Lawrence (who also painted The Red Boy, about which I will speak on Monday 28 February), has for many years hung opposite The Blue Boy, which will form the focus of the third in the series Red, White and Blue. It’s all connected, you see. Details of all of these talks, are, of course, on the diary page… And, as if this isn’t enough to read, here is a link to my review of Tate Britain’s exhibition Hogarth and Europe which was published in the February Issue of The Burlington Magazine. Some of you may have come to my talk about the exhibition. However, with that ‘introduction’ I was trying hard to talk about the art, and probably didn’t really communicate what I actually thought about the exhibition. Well, the review is a polite version, draw your own conclusions. I didn’t have enough time to talk about Hogarth as a portraitist, which is a great pity: I prefer his portraits to those of either Reynolds or Gainsborough, which might come as a surprise to some. But then, compared to that illustrious couple, I also prefer the slightly later Thomas Lawrence, whose work I want to look at today, and then again during the talk on Monday.
I find this portrait somewhat disarming. A young woman – a girl, even – steps forward, her delicately shod right foot placed equally delicately on the central axis of the painting, her body, like a marble column rising above it, almost coincidentally in the middle of our field of view as she moves along a diagonal from the back left to go out of the painting beyond the front right. As she steps to the right her diaphanous muslin skirts are blown by a light breeze to the left, revealing the form of her leading leg. The untied ribbons of her hat, the same candyfloss pink as her high, empire-style waistband, also flutter to the left, making you wonder what it is, precisely, that is holding her hat in place. But she is not looking where she is going. The movement may be to the front right of the painting, but she has turned her face to look directly out, and so directly towards us, and her fixed gaze is commanding, compelling, and just a little bit unnerving.
She is walking on a hill top, far, it would seem, from ‘civilisation’. What exactly is she doing, you might ask, a girl of this tender age, walking so far from human habitation, and indeed, so far from any sign of human presence? Except, of course, she is not alone: we are there, to see her. Or rather, Thomas Lawrence was there, to paint her (not that she was actually outside when painted, of course…). At her feet the grass is short, and from it grow indistinct flowers, beautifully evoked with just a few dashes of paint, possibly a nod to her youth and future fertility. At some distance, over the brow of the hill on which she walks, we see the brow of the next, far lower hill, with a path curving across it, past sheep and towards a grove of trees. And beyond that – water – a river or lake – and more trees, and more hills. When the painting is seen from a distance this may look like the sea, but the blue is the result of atmospheric perspective, almost as if the blue of the sky and the mist in the air are getting in the way of everything we look at. To the left of her leading right foot we can just see her left, lifting off the ground to take the next step forward, under the complex billowing of her dress.
Her right arm is bent, with the hand perhaps resting on the back of the skirt, her left hand is raised, floating in front of her chest, and casting a shadow on her bodice. The lace trim suggests that the neckline is relatively low cut – for one so young – and it may be that the hand floats there as a sign of her insecurity given her immanent womanhood. Or maybe she is dancing – this is almost a sailor’s hornpipe. Whatever this gesture means, it adds to the slight mystery of the painting, and to its magic. If she is insecure, she does not show it on her face, which looks towards us, inquisitively perhaps, but with determination. It is framed by the rich lustrous curls which were a hallmark of Lawrence’s portraiture – if you wanted your hair to look good, you went to him – and the hair itself is framed by the pink halo of the hat.
Unlike The Red Boy – or, for that matter, The Blue Boy – the painting is not named for its colour. Instead, it is coloured for its name. The subject is Sarah Goodin Moulton, the 11-year-old daughter of Charles Moulton, a merchant from Madeira who settled in St James, Jamaica and married Elizabeth Barrett, whose family had settled there in 1655. Her name may be familiar: Elizabeth’s brother Edward was the father of the poet we now know as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which is perhaps why the painting is now given both mother’s and father’s names: Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton. The original Sarah Goodin had been the name of one the girl’s aunts who had died as an infant in 1791, two years before this Sarah was born. Within the family, though, the second Sarah was known as “Pinkie” – hence the name of the painting, and presumably, Lawrence’s choice for the colour which she wears. In Jamaica the family were wealthy landowners, and exporters of sugar cane and rum. And yes, there is no getting away from it, they owned slaves. Father seems to have been no good (and not just for this reason – after all, almost everyone was guilty either directly or indirectly). He left the family when Pinkie was only six, leaving Elizabeth to raise the girl, and her three younger brothers, on her own. In September 1792 the four children sailed to England to go to school, leaving Pinkie’s maternal grandmother, Judith Barrett, somewhat bereft. The following year Judith wrote to one of her nieces, who lived in Surrey, just outside London:
I became every day more desirous to see my dear little Pinkey. But as I cannot gratify myself with the Original, I must beg favour of You to have her picture drawn full Length by one of the best Masters in an easy Careless attitude. As your Taste and Judg’ment cannot be excell’d, I leave her Dress to You – You will therefore be so kind as to inform me by the first pacquet after you receive this, what the Amount will be, and I will get a Bill and send You as soon a possible – I shall expect it out as soon as the paint is well dried and Seasoned – Let the frame be handsome and neat.
The painting, with the requested ‘easy Careless attitude’ – perhaps inspired by the dance steps Pinkie would have learnt in her new school as part of her upbringing as a respectable and accomplished young lady – was completed in 1794, and exhibited at the Royal Academy annual exhibition the following year. The exhibition opened on 1 May. The day before – 30 April – Pinkie had been buried in St Alfege, Greenwich. The cause of death is not known. The painting was not sent to Jamaica, remaining with the family in England until 1910. Having passed through the dealers’ hands, in 1927 it was acquired by Henry E. Huntington, who just five years earlier had also bought The Blue Boy – and the two have been together ever since.
The portraits hang opposite each other in The Huntington Art Gallery, and are so connected in the public imagination that many imagine them to be brother and sister – even though one of them, although wearing 17th Century costume, was painted around 1770, while the other was completed, in contemporary fashion, some quarter of a century later. Lawrence was not exactly old himself when he painted the later portrait: he was 25, and had just been made a full member of the Royal Academy, an honour Constable would not be granted until he was more than twice that age. Mind you, when he was Pinkie’s age – eleven – he was already a professional artist. His father had realised that young Thomas – a child prodigy – was well placed to earn enough money from his portraits to support the whole family. But that’s another story, and one which I will touch on on Monday, when we look at what is arguably his best portrait of a child, The Red Boy.