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John Riley (1646-91)

Bridget Holmes (1591-1691) Signed and dated 1686

RCIN 405667

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Bridget Holmes (d. 1691), shown here at the reputed age of 96, was James II's 'Necessary Woman', responsible for cleaning and preparing the royal bedchamber, polishing and dusting fragile furniture and, with the assistance of other servants, laying fires, mopping and sweeping, and emptying and cleaning chamber pots and close stool pans. Holmes was paid well for this work: in 1685, as recorded in the king's establishment book, she was paid £60 salary, £10 10s for her lodgings and £21 5s for 'all kind of necessaries in lieu of Bills'. She continued in service under William III, and on her death – supposedly aged 100 – she was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey; on her monument it was noted that she had also served Charles I and Charles II.

It was rare in the seventeenth century for domestic servants to be the subject of portraits. There are, however, at least two other examples in Riley's work: A Scullion (Oxford, Christ Church) and Katherine Elliot, painted jointly with J.B. Closterman (Royal Collection). As one writer expressed it, 'Riley was most at home below stairs'. Although this portrait seems to commemorate both Holmes's age and her royal service, Riley has also created a parody of more formal Baroque portraiture. He shows her in servant's dress and brandishing a broom, in a grand interior complete with vase decorated with a classical frieze, and a page peeping out from behind a damask curtain. It is possible that some satirical or moral comment was intended, but the humour does not seem to be at the dignified woman's expense. This image of Bridget Holmes anticipates both William Hogarth and Reynolds in its treatment of subject and visual allusions.

Riley trained with the German portrait painter, Gilbert Soest (1605–81), and the English artist, Isaac Fuller (?1606–72); one of his earliest portraits is of William Chiffinch, Keeper of the King's Jewels and Closet from1666 to 1685 (Dulwich Picture Gallery). He rose to prominence after the death of Lely in 1680, being appointed Painter and Picture Drawer in Ordinary to the king in 1681, and Principal Painter in Ordinary to William and Mary in 1689, jointly with Sir Godfrey Kneller.

Text adpated from Charles II: Art and Power, London, 2017.