A cup of tea with a duchess

Soldi, Andrea; Isabella Duchess of Manchester (1706-1786); The Foundling Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/isabella-duchess-of-manchester-17061786-271612 Photo credit: Whitfield Fine Art

I first saw this painting when the Foundling Museum put it on display as part of their Ladies of Quality and Distinction exhibition in 2018/19. Isabella Montagu, (c.1706-1786) was one of twenty-one elite women who supported Thomas Coram’s petition for the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children, which was established in 1739. One of the most interesting things about her was that after her first husband died, she married a commoner (much to her family’s horror) and with much persistence had him raised to the aristocracy. It was not an easy thing to do.

Detail of painting of Isabella Montagu – with two dogs.

Isabella is depicted as Diana the Huntress. It was a common theme in paintings with images dating from at least the seventeenth century. Here she is shown with the classical attributes of a crescent moon, bow and arrow, hunting dogs and fur. Said to be a goddess associated with fertility, it seems an odd choice for a childless woman as she was when this portrait was completed. Perhaps she thought it would help her produce the heirs that would have been expected of her. In fact Isabella did eventually have children but only after she married for the second time.

Despite the differences between her life and mine, we may have at least shared one pleasure – meeting with friends and having a cup of tea. Some of Isabella’s tea parties may have been quite formal affairs – in the eighteenth century it was a way of forming networks and establishing your place in society. But I would like to think that at least some of the time she may have got together with close friends and had some fun. Perhaps they would have talked about the latest novel or a play they had seen. They may have talked about music or art. No doubt it would have been a chance to catch up with news of family and friends – who had recently been hatched, matched or dispatched. But they might have also talked about politics or the latest scientific discoveries.

Staffordshire teapot (18th century) in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

I did find a couple of poems about Isabella. One was called Isabella, or The Morning and was written in 1740 by Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, a Welsh diplomat. It describes a morning visit to Isabella by three gentleman, all eager to be husband number two. One brings her a Staffordshire teapot, which she becomes quite ecstatic about. It is described as having a decoration of vine leaves, and probably much like the one I saw recently at the Ashmolean Museum. However, another of her callers brings a cuttlefish to show her, and she enthuses equally about that. According to the poem, it was destined for the Royal Society in London to be looked at debated. At that time women could not become fellows of learned societies but they could, and did, attend public lectures. (The first women fellows of the Royal Society were taken on in 1945).

For my current work for Bridging the Gap, I have been thinking about how despite any privileges of being a duchess, a woman of the eighteenth century had a much more restricted life than one today, particularly in terms of education. Much poorer women had even less – many not even expected to read and write. But I’d like to think that because Isabella signed Coram’s petition, if we had met we may have had a shared interest in the Foundling Hospital, and we could have chatted about that over a pot of tea.

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