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Image and Impact

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88)

Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) c. 1781

Oil on canvas | 238.8 x 158.7 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 401407

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When this portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1781, Sir Henry Bate-Dudley praised it as ‘the only happy likeness we ever saw pourtrayed of her Majesty’. Gainsborough had already received commissions from the King’s brothers but the exhibition of these major full lengths proved his pre-eminence as unofficial court painter, ‘the Apollo of the Palace’. A portrait of Prince William, painted in the same year, was followed by the set of 15 ovals of the royal family in 1782. Reynolds commented on Gainsborough’s practice of ‘forming all the parts of the picture together’. Here all the parts have a suggestive delicacy. The Queen’s dress of gold-spangled silk net over white silk, punctuated by tasselled bunches of gold lace, dominates the painting. Its intangible gauze-like effect is echoed by the flowers in the Queen’s powdered hair and in the foliage and sky in the landscape beyond. Famous for capturing an exact likeness, Gainsborough gives the Queen’s unremarkable features latent gaiety and animation as she moves into the light, her dog in step with her. Her regal bearing is reinforced by the height of her elaborately dressed hair, her easy control of her hooped dress and train and the grandeur of the classical temple behind her. James Northcote, Reynolds’s pupil, also praised the portrait: ‘with what a graceful sweep she seems to move through the picture! ’Tis actual motion, and done with such a light airy facility . . . The drapery was done in one night by Gainsborough and his nephew, Gainsborough Dupont; they sat up all night, and painted it by lamplight.’ Although not a State Portrait like that painted by Ramsay in 1761, this full length by Gainsborough has been rightly described as a ‘portrait of grand informality’; it was much copied. George III hung the painting in the Dining Room at Buckingham House, although it was briefly transferred to Windsor in 1804/5.