About the portrait collection

By Dr. Laurie B. Harwood

Watford is extremely fortunate to have in its museum the splendid collection of portraits of various members of the Essex family which span a period of over two centuries. The oldest and among the finest is that which represents Robert Devereux, Queen Elizabeth I's Favourite during the last years of her life. It culminates with a portrait of George Capel Coningsby, 5th Earl of the 7th creation, who was himself a great patron of the arts during the first quarter of the 19th century.

These paintings represent a cross-section of the changing image of the English face - albeit that from the upper echelons of society - as depicted by some of the most outstanding itinerant portrait painters, largely foreign, working in England between 1590 and 1830, when the art form was at its zenith.

Chronologically the collection begins with Marcus Gheeraerts' studio portrait of Robert Devereux, which exemplifies brilliantly late 16th century Elizabethan painting. From the following century comes Sir Peter Lely's depictions of Arthur Capel and Elizabeth Percy, the 1st Earl and Countess of Essex. They represent the era of the great state portraiture, echoing the grandeur of Sir Anthony van Dyck. The Lelys are followed by the more sober, new generation portraits produced at the end of the 17th century, exemplified in the collection by the works of Sir Godfrey Kneller.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, among the greatest exponents of the Romantic era who took the genre to a new level of importance, is represented by the delightful portrait of Frances Hanbury Williams. Wife of William Anne Holles, 4th Earl of Essex, the portrait shows a greater degree of self-awareness not hitherto seen in the English portrait painting. Sir Thomas Lawrences's studio portrait of the 5th Earl of Essex represents a return to the type of state portraits showing a concern for the superficial appearance of the sitter.

There are likewise excellent examples of lesser-known artists who are, only now, being recognised for their talent - among them William Wissing, who came from the Netherlands to work for Lely, and Enoch Seeman, who painted for the Royal family during the first half of the 18th century.

Further information
Watford Museum website