Portrait of dazzling 18th-century beauty goes to Edinburgh

  • 9 November 2006

An iconic portrait of one of the most celebrated beauties of the late 18th century, by Scottish artist Gavin Hamilton, has been acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery with The Art Fund's help.

The full-length painting of Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton (1752-53) was acquired by the Gallery for £603,036, with a £75,000 contribution from The Art Fund. Additional funding came from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Elizabeth Gunning’s looks were so magnetic that people were said to gather outside her home just to catch a glimpse of her passing in her carriage. Irish by birth and upbringing, Elizabeth was not born to wealth or status but her physical allure compensated for the absence of a dowry.

After meeting at a masquerade, Elizabeth entered into a courtship with James, 6th Duke of Hamilton, who became so impatient to wed her that they married a few weeks later in a clandestine, night-time ceremony on Valentine’s Day 1752. This portrait was probably commissioned to celebrate their marriage.

Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798) is regarded as one of the founders of European neoclassicism, and profoundly influenced the taste of more than a generation of painters, collectors and art connoisseurs throughout Europe. His ambitious portrait of the Duchess became extremely well-known at the time through engravings, and was largely responsible for Elizabeth Gunning’s fame.

Clothed in a beautifully draped silver dress and crimson wrap, Elizabeth’s elegant pose and proportions are reminiscent of a classical sculpture. The Duchess’s appearance in the painting was so admired that the portrait came to epitomise a particular idea of female perfection.

Gavin Hamilton, a distant kinsman of the Dukes of Hamilton, was born in Lanarkshire, and was educated at the University of Glasgow before studying in Rome between 1744 and 1751. The enormous success of Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton established the artist as one of Britain’s most accomplished young portrait painters. 

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Scottish National Portrait Gallery