Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Oh, for a pound of flesh!

The actress Elizabeth Farren is one of the Amateur Historian's personal favorite celebrities of the late 18th century, though there is little written about said actress and little justification for the Amateur Historian's interest besides the portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, to the right, and the Amateur Historian's own personal admiration of elegance in all forms, whether in speech or in person. Vapid, mayhap, but it brings yet another funny portrait story.

Sir Thomas Lawrence was 21 when he painted this, one of his most famous portraits. Note the almost reckless elegance of the brushstrokes, the fine portrayal of the different types of fabrics, the fact that Miss Farren is moving towards the center of the canvas, giving an impression of energy and movement, and the fact that the horizon is so low, making Miss Farren dominate the scene. The portrait was hailed as a success by everyone save Miss Farren herself.

As she wrote to Sir Thomas Lawrence: "You will think me the most troublesome of all human beings, but, indeed, it is not my own fault; they tease me to death about this picture, and insist upon my writing to you. One says it is so thin in the figure that you might blow it away; another, that it looks broke in the middle. In short, you must make it a little fatter, at all events diminish the bend you are so attached to, even it if makes the picture look ill, for the owner of it is quite distressed about it at present. I am shocked to tease you, and dare-say you wish me and the portrait in the fire; but as it was impossible to appease the cries of my friends, I must beg you to excuse me."

Sir Thomas did not and, in fact, titled his portrait "Portrait of an Actress" (further upsetting Miss Ferrars, as "actress" held all the associations of disreputability and high-class prostitution) and upped his asking price from sixty guineas to one-hundred. Miss Farren advised her platonic beau and later husband, the Earl of Derby (and inventor of the eponymous horse-race) not to buy it.

Fortunately for us, the Earl bought it anyways.


  1. I can understand her distress, but she was a fool. I'd have found myself less short-sighted friends.

  2. I personally find it funny that the standards of beauty have changed so much. No modern-day celeb would be freaked out that they looked too thin.

    Despite what she thought about it, I'm happy the portrait remained as is! It's one of my faves.