Richard Houston was an Irish engraver, who arrived in London in 1746 with another Irishman, Macardell. He was trained under Robert West in the Drawing Schools of the Dublin Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. The quality of his drawing was quickly apparent and, in the 1750s during a marked expansion of the printing trade, he had great success with a series of portraits of politicians and mezzotints after paintings by Rembrandt belonging to the dealer John Blackwood. According to Horace Walpole he was ‘idle, capricious and extravagant’ and was sent to the Fleet for debt by Robert Sayer, a print seller for whom he mostly worked. Despite these difficulties Richard Houston always maintained a high standard of quality of work.
Francis Cotes, the son of an apothecary, was apprenticed in around 1741, to the portrait painter George Knapton who taught him to paint in oil and in crayon. Soon afterwards he established himself as a highly fashionable portrait painter. Influenced by Rosalba Carriera who popularised crayon portraiture in Venice, he initially concentrated on portraits in pastel and crayon, but later returned to oil painting. He frequently had engravings made after his portraits, in order to reach a far greater public and gain widespread recognition. Cotes was among the founding members of the Royal Academy. He then became director of the Society of Artists, where he had exhibited since 1760. He was fortunate enough to make crayon portraits of the Gunning sisters as this made his reputation.
Elizabeth Gunning was born in Hemingford Grey, Huntingdonshire, the daughter of John Gunning of Castle Coote and his wife, Bridget, née Bourke (a daughter of the 6th Viscount Mayo) and a younger sister of Maria Gunning. The family was very poor and the mother encouraged her and her sister to take up acting. When in London they acted in many West End shows and at the New Spring Gardens. In 1752 Elizabeth met the Duke of Hamilton who, according to Robert Walpole, wished to marry her that very night. The Duke called for a local parson to perform the ceremony, but without a license or a ring the latter refused. However, they were married that same night in Mayfair Chapel in a clandestine marriage, with a ring from a bed curtain. When the Duke died in 1758, she became engaged to the Duke of Bridgewater but the engagement was annulled. The following year she married John, fifth Duke of Argyll and later was created a Peeress as Baroness Hamilton. From 1761 to 1784 she was a lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte.
The original pastel portrait by Francis Cotes entitled Elizabeth, Duchess of Hamilton and of Argyll, dated 1751, is at the National Portrait Gallery. There is also there a mezzotint engraving after the portrait and a copy in oil in a private collection.
- MACKENZIE, Ian, British Prints, Dictionary and Guide, Antique Collectors’ Club
- CLAYTON, Timothy, The English Print 1688-1802, Yale University Press, 1997
- CHALONER SMITH, John, British Mezzotinto Portraits, Vol. 2, p. 656, London 1879