Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Child’s Portrait in Different Views: Angel’s Heads

by Catherine Curzon

Regular readers of my posts both here and on my own site here will know that I hold something of a soft spot for Sir Joshua Reynolds, the legendary Devonian portrait artist. Reynolds was the darling of the upper classes and his work is among that of a select group who define British art in the long 18th century. Perhaps best known for his portraits, it was a form he took a slightly different approach to with the work I am looking at today, A Child’s Portrait in Different Views: Angel’s Heads, which was painted between 1786–7.

This unusual painting depicts five differing studies of the head of  his infant subject, Lady Frances Isabella Keir Gordon. Lady Frances was the five year old daughter of Frances Ingram-Shepheard and her husband, Lord William Gordon, who had once made scandalous headlines thanks to his youthful elopement with one of George III's old flames.

Now years later and steeped in respectability, Lord William commissioned the portrait in summer 1786. Over the months that followed, Reynolds worked tirelessly on the painting, eventually completing it in March 1787. The canvas was displayed at the Royal Academy and Reynolds took as his inspiration for the style a drawing of cherubs' heads by Carlo Maratta.

A Child’s Portrait in Different Views: Angel’s Heads by Joshua Reynolds, 1786-7

The portrait is clearly very different to those works with which Reynolds has become better associated, a far from formal or traditional work or portraiture. Instead, he has painted the same child five times and each of the heads shows a different expression, from wonder to concern to happiness, capturing the vagaries of Lady Frances's changing moods. In only one part of the canvas does she look directly out of the painting, her attention briefly caught and held by the world beyond the frame.

It is a painting commissioned by parents who clearly adored their child and wanted to remember her in those early years as she grew into a woman. In fact, this picture would far outlast the little girl and when she died in 1831, her bereaved mother passed the work to the National Gallery, where it remains to this day.

The cherubic style and the unusual execution of the work is is not, in all honesty, one to which I am particularly attached. However, it is a work that I have never forgotten in the years since I first saw it and for that reason I present it to you today - after all, one can never have too much Reynolds!


Postle, Martin. Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity, (Tate Publishing, 2005).

Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.


  1. he has painted the same child five times and each of the heads shows a different expression

    Fascinating. He created a kind of film footage...which flicks in the mind as one looks from one to the other. Unusually idea, then and now

    1. It still stands out, even centuries later; I hadn't thought of it as cinematic, but you're absolutely right.

  2. This painting is at Tate Britain now and apparently on view, though I don't remember seeing it there. An excuse for another visit I think!


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