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Elizabeth and Mary Linley

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This double portrait of Elizabeth and Mary Linley, is the only known painting depicting both sisters together, each other’s closest companions.  Gainsborough moved to Bath in 1759 and became good friends with the Linley family; he did a series of portraits of the Linley family from the late 1760s until 1789.   Elizabeth the eldest wears a pale blue underdress and overdress and gazes into the distance, with her hands resting on a guitar. Mary wears a golden brown under and overdress and engages with viewer with a score sheet on her lap. 

The Linley family were a famous musical family known as ‘The Nest of the Nightingales’.  Elizabeth was known for her voice and beauty, appearing first as a singer in 1767 in Covent Garden and she soon escalated to being one of the most highly sought after singer of oratorios’.  Mary made her public debut as an actress at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1769 and then followed in her sister’s footsteps as a singer of Oratorios in 1771.  Both sisters were forbidden to sing in public once married, and therefore Elizabeth retired at eighteen and Mary at twenty-two, depriving the music world of their beautiful voices.

Elizabeth’s dramatic love life was the talk of society, she broke off her engagement to Walter Long in 1771, reputedly because of an affair with Captain Thomas Mathews, a married friend of the family, but by 1772 it is believed that she fled to France with Richard Brinsley Sheridan acting as her escort, to distance herself from Mathews and to enter a convent in Lille.  Prior to the second (and legal) marriage of Elizabeth and Sheridan in London on the 13th April 1773, Mathews and Sheridan fought two duels for her hand.

Gainsborough carried out this painting between early 1771 and March 1772.  In 1785 upon the request of the Linley family, he re-touched the painting to depict the sitters in the fashion of the 1780s.  It appears that Mary had not been satisfied with the likeness, however when it returned to the Linley household on the 2nd November 1785, Mary wrote to Elizabeth ‘I found our picture come home from Gainsbro’s very much improved and freshened up.  My father and mother are quite in raptures with it; indeed it is in my opinion, the best and handsomest of you that I have ever seen.’  What we currently see today is combination of Gainsborough’s own hand 1771-2 and 1785.

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Currently on display

Thomas Gainsborough
c.1772, retouched 1785
Gallery 3
199 x 153.5 cm
Oil on canvas
William Linley Bequest, 1835
Accession number
Adopted by three anonymous benefactors, 1998