J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Portrait of a Wealthy Lady

Last week the Guardian reported on an upcoming exhibit of the art of William Hogarth at the Tate Britain museum in London.

One item in the exhibit is Hogarth’s 1742 portrait of Mary Edwards of Kensington, which doesn’t get out of the Frick Collection much. This fall will be the first time it’s been shown in London for more than a century.

The newspaper profiled the sitter’s life:
Born in about 1704, Edwards inherited the fortune of both her rich parents in her early 20s. Her investments, which are believed to have been founded largely on the profits of land reclamation schemes in Holland and on property ownership, brought her in £50,000-£60,000 a year.

In her late 20s she secretly married Lord Anne Hamilton, so named because he was the godson of Queen Anne. Although he was from a wealthy background, as the third son in his family he was not deemed a suitable match. The couple had a son, Gerard, but Mary quickly discovered that her husband was busy spending her fortune.

In an extraordinary move for the times, she then asserted her own freedom by refusing to acknowledge him, describing herself as a spinster. This meant she could retain her estates and fortune, but also effectively declared her own son illegitimate. He grew up using her surname.
Other interpretations of the record say that Edwards and Lord Anne never legally married, though they did live together as a family. Hogarth painted father, mother, and baby son shortly before the separation.

Edwards remained a friend and patron of Hogarth, commissioning his paintings Southwark Fair and Taste in High Life. She also supported other artists and institutions in Georgian Britain.

In 1742, Hogarth produced his portrait of Mary Edwards, conveying her worldly power as the richest woman in Britain. She appears wearing a red dress and white diamonds. Beside her is a large and loyal hunting dog. Behind her are pictures of the national rulers Alfred the Great and Elizabeth, plus lines from Joseph Addison’s play Cato.

Edwards died the following year, not yet forty. Her son inherited a great fortune and married the daughter of an earl. 

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